Following a record-tying seventh consecutive Big Game victory, the No. 24 Stanford Cardinal (8-3, 6-3 Pac-12) move from one week defined by traditions into another as they prepare to take on the visiting Rice Owls (3-8, 2-6 Conference USA).
Gone is the red dye from the campus fountains; the train whistle can stop working overtime and return to signaling Cardinal scoring plays. Taking their place for the regular season finale are “My Last Walk” shirts and a chance for every fourth- and fifth-year senior to be introduced as they emerge from the tunnel, taking it all in for the final time at Stanford Stadium.
With this heightened sense of awareness that another college football season is quickly coming to a close, the Cardinal have continued to approach practice with a businesslike intensity, looking to seize unrealized potential in a season of ups and downs.
“For what we’ve done this year, we have no right to look down on anybody,” head coach David Shaw said. “Hopefully, we have that feeling of still trying to make up for lost time.”
“We still have a lot of guys that are improving,” he added. “We can’t take a step back. We can’t take our foot off the gas pedal. We have to keep pushing and keep growing. The real opponent for us is making sure that we play better than we did last week.”
Rice comes into this matchup with a win streak of its own, a two-game run with wins over Charlotte and UT El Paso. The injury-depleted Owls, however, received yet another devastating blow in their victory over the Miners last week as fifth-year senior starting quarterback Tyler Stehling went down with a knee injury on the game’s opening drive.
In a season where the Owls have already had to endure 32 players succumbing to a stomach virus, a tally of season-ending injuries that has hit double digits and eight different combinations along the offensive line, head coach David Bailiff’s team will have to overcome one more hurdle before the season comes to an end. Redshirt freshman Jackson Tyner, who replaced Stehling in last week’s victory, will make his first career start at quarterback after completing 18 of his 25 passes for 196 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against UTEP.
As Rice’s leader in rushing attempts this season, Stehling’s absence will also put additional strain on the Owls’ running game and, in particular, on senior tailback Darik Dillard, who has accumulated 416 yards on the ground this season to the tune of 4.57 yards per carry.
The real concern for Rice, though, comes on the other side of the ball, where the Owls rank sixth-to-last in the FBS in total defense and will now face a blossoming Stanford offense that has averaged 39.7 points and 335 rushing yards in its last three games.
Headlining Stanford’s offensive resurgence, especially on the ground, is a fully healthy Christian McCaffrey, who, after breaking his own school record with 284 rushing yards in Big Game, now stands just 404 all-purpose yards away from moving past Darrin Nelson for most in school history.
With the chatter surrounding McCaffrey, who is eligible to enter the NFL draft next spring, and with McCaffrey’s future continuing to build, Shaw reaffirmed that only fourth- and fifth-year players will be participating in the Senior Night ceremonies. He also added that McCaffrey has already done enough in his career to earn him legendary status within the sport.
“[McCaffrey’s] one of the best players in the history of college football. Just mark it down. It’s the truth,” Shaw said. “The numbers say the same thing the film says: This guy’s an all-time great.”
With McCaffrey poised to feature prominently again against a Rice defense that has had its share of struggles, Shaw also noted that Saturday’s regular season finale presents another opportunity for starting quarterback Keller Chryst to grow and gain experience in his role.
“Just like the transition from the first week to the second week and the second week to the third week,” said Shaw of his expectations of Chryst. “As I said to him a couple weeks ago, you want to watch yourself play and make it look like you’re in practice: smooth, relaxed and comfortable.”
Beginning at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Stanford will say goodbye to an impactful senior class, in which 10 of the 12 scholarship signees developed into major contributors, and look to end the regular season with a five-game winning streak. The game will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.