Heading into the 2016 Sun Bowl, almost all of the major storylines for the No. 18 Stanford Cardinal (10-3, 6-3 Pac-12) centered around the absence of star running back Christian McCaffrey, who elected to sit out the game to begin preparing for the 2017 NFL Draft.
By the final whistle in El Paso, however, it was another Cardinal standout who seized the headlines and perhaps cemented his own draft status.
In a dominant performance to cap off a breakout season, junior defensive lineman Solomon Thomas recorded seven total tackles, including a sack, but saved his best play for last, bursting into the North Carolina (8-5, 5-3 ACC) backfield on the Tar Heels’ potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt to suppress a late UNC rally and preserve a 25-23 victory for the Cardinal on Friday afternoon.
In McCaffrey’s absence, sophomore running back Bryce Love stepped into the starting tailback role for the second time in his career and turned in a strong performance, rushing for 119 yards on 21 carries and doing damage as a receiver, grabbing a downfield pass from starting quarterback Keller Chryst and going the distance for a 49-yard touchdown.
Love’s touchdown — the first receiving score for the North Carolina native since his inaugural scoring play against UCF last season — also put Stanford on the scoreboard to tie the game at 7-7.
After the early offensive fireworks from both sides, the contest took a sharp turn as Chryst reportedly tore his ACL late in the first quarter and missed the remainder of the game. Chryst finished his day completing three of his six passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
Backup quarterback Ryan Burns struggled to establish a rhythm after relieving Chryst, finishing the game 6-of-12 for 86 yards through the air. Meanwhile, the Cardinal defense clamped down after giving up an early touchdown, and as a result, both sides mustered a total of 12 points for the next 35 minutes of the game. Fifth-year senior kicker Conrad Ukropina converted on three field goal attempts, including two in the first half to give the Cardinal a 13-7 lead at halftime, while his Tar Heel counterpart, Nick Weiler, added one in the third quarter.
Stanford’s offensive struggles for much of the game were punctuated by both red zone struggles (the Cardinal failed to score a touchdown on all five trips inside the Tar Heel 20-yard line) and penalties (accumulating 12 flags for 85 yards over the course of the game).
Then, in spite of another suffocating defensive performance, the Cardinal saw their early lead slip away as UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky engineered a nine-play, 68-yard scoring drive capped off by a 5-yard Jordan Brown touchdown run to give North Carolina a 17-16 lead with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
After another three-and-out from the sputtering Stanford offense, the Tar Heels regained possession with an eye toward extending their lead and seizing control of the game. However, on another banner day for the Stanford defense, Lance Anderson’s squad took the task of scoring into its own hands, as fifth-year senior safety Dallas Lloyd snared a Trubisky pass and took it the distance for a 19-yard pick-six, giving the Cardinal a 22-17 lead after a failed two-point conversion attempt. The interception was Lloyd’s second of the day and his team-leading fifth of the season.
On their next possession, the Cardinal offense returned to their patented style with a 12-play, 70-yard drive that erased over seven minutes from the clock. But after being stymied on three consecutive plays at the goal line the Cardinal settled for another Ukropina field goal to increase their lead to 25-17, leaving the door open for a last-ditch North Carolina comeback.
And the Tar Heels nearly made the most of their final opportunity. After taking over on their own 3-yard line with 90 seconds to play following a 56-yard punt from Jake Bailey, UNC began marching down the field on a drive headlined by several spectacular throws from Trubisky, culminating in a 2-yard touchdown toss to receiver Bug Howard to get the Tar Heels within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime.
From there, Thomas and the defense dug in for one last game-altering play as the junior raced into the backfield nearly untouched on the ensuing conversion try and grabbed Trubisky before reinforcements arrived to bring down the Carolina quarterback before the play ever had a chance to develop, sealing the victory for Stanford.
With the win, the Cardinal notched their sixth 10-win season in the last seven years, joining Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma as the only schools to maintain that standard of success this decade. The victory also gave the Cardinal three straight bowl wins for the first time in school history.
The bowl win also concludes the 2016 campaign for the Cardinal. Following a nine-month layoff, Stanford will next take the field in the southern hemisphere, playing Rice in Australia to kick off the 2017-18 season.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.