When Christian McCaffrey tore up the UCLA Bruins’ defense last season en route to setting Stanford’s single-game rushing record, it seemed like a performance that dominant would create a record that would last a long time.
The record barely lasted a year. But the new record belongs to the same person.
McCaffrey eclipsed his own career high with 284 yards rushing, adding three touchdowns as the No. 24 Stanford Cardinal (8-3, 6-3 Pac-12) defeated their rivals, the California Golden Bears (4-7, 2-6) 45-31, capturing their seventh straight victory in the Big Game.
Cal’s rushing defense, which came into the game as the second-worst team in the FBS in rushing yardage allowed, had no answer for a running back who was itching to break loose. Perhaps the play most emblematic of the game was McCaffrey’s 90-yard rushing touchdown early in the third quarter. After finding a hole and benefitting from some missed tackles by the Cal defense, McCaffrey ran wild to put Stanford up by 10 and spell doom for the Bears, who would never be able to close the deficit.
“What else can you say about Christian McCaffrey that hasn’t already been said?” head coach David Shaw said after the game. “Great football player, one of the best in the nation, offensive line is playing really well. He’s been healthy, and this is what happens when he’s healthy, He is special, special, special, and he took the game over.”
“Every time he runs, I want to turn around and watch him as soon as I hand it off,” junior quarterback Keller Chryst added. “It’s pretty phenomenal every time I give it to him, and [I] give a lot of credit to the guys up front who pave the way for him.”
However, while Stanford had total control in the second half, the opening 30 minutes told a completely different story.
The Bears defense managed to keep the game within reach in the first half and did enough to support a talented Cal offense that gave Stanford its fair share of trouble.
Senior transfer quarterback Davis Webb looked poised under center as he controlled the Bears offense, and he was able to make Stanford’s defense look undisciplined early on. On Cal’s first play from scrimmage, Webb found junior wide receiver Chad Hansen, who took a simple route and managed to turn the entire Stanford secondary around as he found on the end zone on a 70-yard play. The touchdown put Cal up 7-0 and marked Stanford’s first deficit in almost a month.
But with the help of some big rushes from McCaffrey and some other offensive assets, Stanford managed to avoid letting the game out of hand. Coming off his best performance of the year at Oregon last week, Chryst turned in another solid effort, completing 13 of 23 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns and adding 23 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground. Chryst looked as comfortable as ever in the pocket, not hesitating to take shots down the field and adding in some timely runs, such as his 16-yard touchdown keeper that fooled the entire Cal defense.
“Nobody is going to work harder than Keller,” Shaw said. “He pushes himself — he expects a lot from himself. I though he handled things really well today.”
And while the game seemed competitive at the end of the half, with Stanford taking a slim 17-14 lead on a 40-yard field goal by fifth-year senior Conrad Ukropina, the Cardinal quickly put any thoughts of an upset to bed by exploiting a Cal defense that could not manage to get a stop.
Meanwhile, while the Stanford defense was decidedly not perfect in the second half, it turned in a much more consistent effort. The Bears’ offensive game plan, which seemed to consist largely of screen passes from Webb to his speedy receivers, was not as successful in the second half, and it could not manage to keep pace with McCaffrey and the Stanford offense.
For McCaffrey, the performance stands not only as a Stanford single-game rushing record but as a Big Game record as well, with the previous high of 226 rushing yards set by Cal’s Joe Igber in 2002. And although his name will be the one associated with the spectacular night, the output is a reflection of the Stanford offensive unit, primarily the offensive line, which has made tremendous improvements since the beginning of the season.
“They’ve come a long way,” said McCaffrey of his offensive line. “We’ve definitely had some ups and downs, but to see where we are now, it gives us a lot of hope going into each week, knowing that we can play and we can get in a rhythm and really hurt some people in the run game.”
The Cardinal’s dominant seven-year winning streak in the Big Game means that another group of Stanford seniors will graduate this year without ever having lost the Axe. It is a big honor for a team that has displayed its dominance in the crosstown rivalry in convincing fashion.
“The people at Stanford really take great pride in having the Axe there,” senior linebacker Peter Kalambayi said. “It’s great that we haven’t given it up in this decade yet.”
Stanford has now won four straight games this season, and it will look to get the streak up to five as it takes on Rice at home next week in its final game of the regular season. Meanwhile, although Cal’s chances of a winning season have evaporated, the team will look to salvage its season as it hosts UCLA next week.
For the Cardinal, the overwhelming takeaway from the game — and perhaps the season — is the idea of resilience. After a rough stretch of three losses in four games that included injuries, a quarterback transition and much more, an impressive win streak points to the mental toughness of the team.
“Since Week 1 and all the trials and tribulations we’ve been through, this team never panics,” Kalambayi said. “Every time something happens, we all look at each other, we say, alright guys, let’s regroup … I guess the way we bounce back really speaks to the character of the guys we have.”
Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu.