It was a finish David Shaw had been waiting for all season long.
Up by two scores late in the third quarter, Stanford football (6-3, 4-3 Pac-12) moved to grind its opponent into sawdust, running the ball on its final 28 offensive plays of the game en route to a 26-15 victory over the visiting Oregon State Beavers (2-7, 1-5 Pac-12) and extending its program-best streak of bowl eligibility to eight consecutive years.
For Shaw, the Cardinal’s unrelenting ground attack signaled the emergence of the Stanford offense that he envisioned at the start of the season, one led by the two-headed backfield monster of Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love.
“You got a glimpse again today of how we thought we were going to play this year early in the year. It’s exciting,” Shaw said. “The combination of Bryce and Christian McCaffrey, it’s so special. When we can play the way we played up front in the running game, get those guys opportunities to find creases, get north, finish plays, it’s exciting.”
Due to a combination of injuries and a general offensive malaise that swept through the program for much of September and October, “McLovin” never fully materialized into the terror that many anticipated at the start of the season. In the last two weeks, however, both backs have returned to full health and practiced together in an extended capacity for the first time all season.
In a sports region that’s no stranger to cheering on dynamic duos, the McCaffrey-Love pairing made a name for itself on Saturday as the 2015 AP Player of the Year racked up a season-high 199 rushing yards on 32 carries while Love picked up 89 yards on nine rushes, each also picking up a touchdown in the game. In total, the Cardinal rushed for 365 yards, the second most in school history behind a 446-yard explosion against Washington in 2011. Move over, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson; the Flash Brothers have arrived.
It wasn’t all rosy offensively for the Cardinal, however. For the second straight week, Stanford’s running game resurgence came through to compensate for a dismal passing day. Quarterback Keller Chryst, making his first home start and second overall, completed 10 of his 17 passes for 60 yards. However, the junior was able to rush for 83 yards on 11 carries, highlighted by a 44-yard scamper to set up a McCaffrey touchdown in the third quarter.
On a day filled with highs and lows, Shaw was optimistic about Chryst’s improvement after his second game of extended action.
“It’s just playing. It’s just playing,” Shaw said about Chryst’s development. “But once again, I’m not going to treat him like he’s a fourth-year vet quarterback. He’s just starting, too. There are going to be some growing pains. Growing pains are sometimes painful. I believe the fruit of our labor will show eventually. We’re going to stay positive with him.”
The most visible sign of Chryst’s growing pains came on Stanford’s very first possession of the day when the junior quarterback fumbled the snap on the the third play from scrimmage, handing the Beavers the ball on the Cardinal’s 33-yard line. Despite the field position favoring Oregon State, Lance Anderson’s defense once again remained stout, forcing the Beavers to attempt a 26-yard field goal that strayed wide.
On their next two possessions, the Cardinal offense would break through. Fifth-year senior kicker Conrad Ukropina delivered the first points of the afternoon after calmly converting a 52-yard field goal that tied his career long against Kansas State in the opening week of the season. Ukropina would go on to hit four of his five field goal attempts on the day, passing Nate Whitaker for ninth on the list of the most made field goals in Stanford history.
“He’s been outstanding,” Shaw said of Ukropina. “The thing is, we trust him. Today that 52- or 53-yarder looked like it was going to be good for 60. He crushed it. You need that. You need a great punter, a great kicker, you need a great defense. Right now we’ve got all three.”
After Ukropina’s kick gave the Cardinal a 3-0 edge, the Stanford defense forced another Beaver three-and-out to hand the ball back to the offense, and fireworks soon ensued.
On the Cardinal’s first play of their third drive, Love found a crease on the right side behind outstanding blocking up front — particularly from true freshman guard Nate Herbig — and took it the distance for a 56-yard touchdown, the longest run of his young career. After being inches away from breaking off a long run a number of times this season, Love finally hit the open field.
“If there’s nobody between [Love] and the goal line, they’re not going to catch him,” Shaw commented. “We know that about [McCaffrey and Love]. If we give them a crease, they’re going to finish it in the end zone.”
“[Love’s] such a playmaker, one of the best players I’ve ever played with,” McCaffrey added. “Whenever you can get the ball in his hands in space, he can do a lot of really special things with it. Any time we can really get the ball in his hands, have both of us on the field at the same time, it can really be an explosive play.”
The excellent blocking from the Tunnel Workers Union in space encapsulated a day of major improvement for the unit that once again had to deal with reshuffling due to injury. With starting left guard Brandon Fanaika leaving the game early in the first quarter, fifth-year senior Johnny Caspers, who was available on an emergency basis after missing last week’s game with an injury, returned to the lineup at right guard while Herbig moved over to replace Fanaika on the left side.
Senior David Bright, who was also not expected to play due to injury, jumped into action after junior right tackle Casey Tucker also left the game with an injury.
“That’s huge,” Chryst said of the offensive line play. “They’ve been improving every week. That’s definitely a big thing when guys can come in and step up not expecting to play at all at the start of the game.”
Meanwhile, the Stanford defense continued its streak of dominance, giving up no more than 15 points for the fourth straight week. Inside linebackers Kevin Palma, a senior, and Mustafa Branch, a sophomore, each recorded an interception, the latter of which came off of a tipped pass from junior defensive lineman Harrison Phillips.
The Cardinal largely stymied Beavers quarterback Marcus McMaryion, who completed 10 out of 24 passes for 137 yards, the majority of which came on a 75-yard touchdown pass to Victor Bolden following a rare lapse in coverage from sophomore corner Quenton Meeks and a missed tackle by fifth-year senior safety Dallas Lloyd.
After another week of noticeable offensive improvement, the Cardinal will next travel to Autzen Stadium to take on the Oregon while the Beavers visit UCLA. As Stanford prepares to renew its rivalry with the Ducks, Shaw hopes to see his team continue building towards the vision of dominant football they set forth in training camp.
“This late in the year, the thing that’s difficult is we haven’t been where we wanted to be. The positive thing is we’ve continued to grow, we’ve continued to grow,” Shaw acknowledged.
“We’re starting to become the team we want to be.”
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.