Stanford sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey had quite the season full of highlights on his way to an invitation to the Heisman ceremony in New York. With the Heisman Trophy set to be awarded this Saturday, take a look back at some of the top plays from McCaffrey’s season.
- Madden in real life: Forty-nine-yard screen pass touchdown catch vs. California
Any Heisman highlight film for McCaffrey must feature this play, which demonstrates every facet of McCaffrey’s game as a runner and a receiver.
McCaffrey takes a screen pass in the backfield and before he can even turn his head completely around, he’s hit and wrapped up by a linebacker, who was all over the play. McCaffrey shows off his strength by staying upright and running through the tackle.
Then, 280-pound defensive tackle James Looney gets two hands on him and appears to be in position to bring him down. The 205-pound McCaffrey keeps his legs churning and escapes the tackle. Despite all the hard work, McCaffrey has only made it back to the line of scrimmage at this point.
Now, it’s all about McCaffrey’s ability to change direction. With linebacker Hardy Nickerson racing in from the right side, McCaffrey slows to a stop before jumping to the right, avoiding any contact with Nickerson, who lunges by him without laying a hand on him.
It’s off to the races for McCaffrey, whose acceleration sends him flying by the defenders who were once at his side. Again, the change of direction — this time with a single firm planting of the left foot — sends Cal safety Griffin Piatt sprawling to the ground and McCaffrey moving back to the middle of the field.
With about 27 yards to the endzone, McCaffrey recognizes he’s miles ahead of just about everyone except for two final players, corners Darius Allensworth and Darius White. He patiently follows the blocking of his receivers, Michael Rector and Francis Owusu, before making one final cut to the right side and plunging into the endzone.
Vision, acceleration, change of direction, strength — it’s all on display for McCaffrey here. As my colleague Vihan Lakshman said on the KZSU call of this play, this was Madden-style moves happening in real life.
- The #WildCaff is born: Seventy-yard cutback touchdown run vs. UCLA
Oct. 15, 2015 will forever live on as the night on which the #WildCaff legend was truly born.
McCaffrey put on a show with a school-record 243 rushing yards and a school-record 4 rushing touchdowns, possibly the best single performance of the college football season to that point against the nation’s No. 18 team. And a large portion of that performance came from McCaffrey’s duties as the Wildcat quarterback.
Twice, McCaffrey took a snap directly out of the Wildcat, with no motion whatsoever, and took the carry into the endzone, including a 9-yard score and this 70-yard score.
For that third-quarter 70-yard score, the sophomore initially followed his blocking left. The play appeared slow to develop, but all of a sudden, McCaffrey planted his left foot, pivoted, hit the turbo button and exploded through the huge hole that had opened on the right side. From there, it was all about breakaway speed — no one was catching him at the 5-yard line this time.
Back in his days as an assistant coach, David Shaw talked about how he teaches running backs to deal with cutbacks.
“We teach our backs that sometimes, a giant cutback lane will open on the backside A gap, if they see it they should take it, but they shouldn’t be looking for it all the time,” Shaw said. “It’s like a $20 bill. If you are walking down the block and see a $20, you should take it, but if you spend your whole life walking around looking at the ground hoping to see a $20 bill, you’ll get hit by a bus.”
Well, McCaffrey saw a $100 bill, picked it up and ran away before the bus even turned the corner. And just like that, the #WildCaff was born.
- The Swiss army knife: touchdown throws
All season long, McCaffrey’s calling card has been his versatility — this week, he was named the Paul Hornung Award winner as the nation’s most versatile player. He can run the ball between the tackles and outside of the tackles, he can take passes out of the backfield and lined up in the slot, he can return kicks and punts, he can run the option and he can run the Wildcat. Yet, the one tool missing from his resume was the ability to throw. Against Colorado, we found out he has that one too.
Despite Stanford already owning a 35-10 lead, Stanford whipped out a new play from the playbook. Hogan pitches the ball to McCaffrey who’s running right on the halfback option. McCaffrey sells the run, then quickly pulls the ball up into a throwing motion before throwing the ball with perfect touch over the Colorado defense and into the waiting arms of Austin Hooper, who takes it into the endzone.
Against USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game, McCaffrey took the ball from a pitch on the reverse while running right. Still moving to the right, McCaffrey sends a beautiful throw to Kevin Hogan in stride for another touchdown pass.
Quite literally, Christian McCaffrey can do it all. His quarterback rating also happens to be higher than DeShaun Watson’s, the Clemson quarterback named a Heisman finalist.
- Hei5man: Kick-return touchdown vs. California
At this point in the season, the Heisman campaign for McCaffrey was already in full swing. Despite another 7:30 p.m. start time, McCaffrey gave another Heisman-worthy performance to continue vaulting his name up the charts.
The major component missing from his resume was the lack of a kick-return touchdown despite taking kicks back all season long –- he had returned two kicks over 60 yards already, but neither finished in the endzone. Against Cal, that bullet point found its way onto the Heisman resume.
With under a minute left in the second quarter, McCaffrey obliterated the need for the two-minute drill offense by taking the lane given to him by his blockers and showing off superb breakaway speed. He initially took the kick up the middle but kicked out to the right sideline while breaking an arm tackle. From there, it was all about the speed as McCaffrey outraced everyone on his way to a 98-yard kick return touchdown.
The touchdown largely contributed to another school-record performance, this time with 389 all-purpose yards, the record which McCaffrey again broke in the Pac-12 Championship against USC.
- Who you gonna call? Sixty-seven-yard catch vs. USC in the Pac-12 Championship
For the first (and only) time, Stanford trailed USC in the Pac-12 Championship. The Trojans scored a touchdown to take a 16-13 lead with just over three minutes left in the third quarter. The Stanford offense had sputtered so far in the second half, with just a combined 22 yards on its two drives. On the other side, the USC offense scored back-to-back touchdowns to open the half. Momentum had swung squarely in the Trojans favor, and Levi’s Stadium was rocking for USC.
Stanford had only thrown the ball eight times thus far all game, as opposed to 38 runs. Yet facing a third-and-six, it was absolutely a passing down. With the season on the line, needing to give its defense a breather and retake some momentum, who did Stanford call upon? The #WildCaff.
McCaffrey ran the angle route out of the backfield, shook off linebacker Olajuwon Tucker with a single cut and made the catch in stride right at the first-down marker. From there, it was off to the races.
He cut in-and-out while waiting for Devon Cajuste to come in and deliver a monster block on USC safety Chris Hawkins. Because he waited for the block, USC cornerback Kevin Seymour caught up and made a shoestring tackle to keep McCaffrey out of the endzone, dragging him down at the 6-yard line.
Stanford’s favorite matchup all season long has been an opposing linebacker on McCaffrey, and it paid off yet again with the season on the line.
McCaffrey finished with 207 rushing yards, 105 receiving yards and a grand total of 461 all-purpose, a school-record and the fifth-best total in FBS history, not to mention a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown. Oh, and he broke the 27-year-old record of 1988 Heisman winner Barry Sanders for the most all-purpose yards in a single season in college football history, while needing seven fewer touches to do it.
- McClutch: Tiptoeing 30-yard run down the sideline at Washington State
With 3:27 remaining, Stanford trailed Washington State by one and had just taken over at the Cougars’ 39-yard line after Quenton Meeks’ interception. However, the Cardinal had struggled to move the ball on offense all day – to that point, the Cardinal had managed just 275 yards of offense, their lowest total since the season opener at Northwestern.
Stanford runs Power to the left side and there didn’t appear to be much room. McCaffrey was first hit at the 38-yard line and should have been brought down for a short gain. He immediately escapes a second tackle aimed at his legs, all while accelerating into the second level of the defense.
Starting at the Washington State 34-yard line, McCaffrey tiptoes down the sideline with incredible speed. He breaks another diving arm tackle at the 25-yard line and manages to stay inbounds while stumbling forward in reacting to the attempted tackle. Finally, McCaffrey is spun down at the 9-yard line.
If McCaffrey is stopped at the line of scrimmage, as most running backs would have been, who knows whether Stanford marches down the field to put Conrad Ukropina in good enough position to hit the game-winning field goal. Without that field goal, Stanford doesn’t win the Pac-12 North.
- Sometimes-I’m-not-down-at-the-one-yard-line McCaffrey: UCLA touchdown runs
All season long, it seemed like McCaffrey had the propensity to fall just short of the endzone on his runs. When you have Remound Wright, arguably the nation’s best goal-line back, in the wings, it’s not a problem. Even still, though, McCaffrey made a statement by finishing with a school-record 4 rushing touchdowns against UCLA
McCaffrey finished three chances on runs starting in UCLA territory.
First, McCaffrey showed off his own ability to be a power runner, pushing through his own blocker, Bryce Love, and UCLA corner Jaleel Wadood (who later became more infamous as the victim of “The Catch”) at the 1-yard line to plow into the endzone from a 9-yard run out of the Wildcat.
Just six minutes later in the second quarter, McCaffrey took the handoff out of the I-formation and raced through the wide-open lane created by his blockers to sneak into the left side of the endzone untouched for a 28-yard score.
After the 70-yard score that stands at No. 3 in this list, McCaffrey scored his fourth and final touchdown on another handoff out of the I-formation, this time running right. McCaffrey sailed right into the lane created by his blockers and again absorbed contact again at the 1-yard line to plunge into the endzone.
This game and performance put McCaffrey on the national map for the first time, despite yet another 7:30 p.m. start time.
- Running back or receiver? Fifty-yard touchdown catch vs. Washington
The only FBS player to lead his team in both rushing and receiving yards, McCaffrey put on a show against Washington, finishing with over 100 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards for the first time in his career.
In the third quarter, McCaffrey ran a wheel right down the right side of the field, blowing through the zone coverage in the flat, making the catch in stride and not losing a step in breaking a final tackle before strutting down the sideline and into the endzone for a 50-yard score.
Though Derrick Henry, the other running back named as a Heisman finalist, might be able to stake claim as the best true running back in the nation — though McCaffrey finished with an equivalent yards per carry average and just 139 less rushing yards — McCaffrey certainly separates himself from Henry when it comes to serving as a receiving threat out of the backfield. McCaffrey finished the season with 540 receiving yards in comparison to Henry’s 97.
- Off to the races: UCLA 96-yard kick return
McCaffrey largely struggled returning kicks over the first few games before breaking out a 67-yard return the previous week against Arizona. However, this return truly marked his entrance into college football as one of the best kick returners in the nation.
McCaffrey found the lane created for him by his blockers and kicked out to the left sideline at the perfect time. He wasn’t quite able to outrace UCLA kicker Kaimi Fairbairn — if you were averaging 269 all-purpose yards per game, you’d get tired too — for the score and was dragged down inside the 10-yard line.
McCaffrey finished the game with 369 all-purpose yards, just 10 shy of what was then the school-record held by Glyn Milburn.
- Goodnight, Marvell Tell: Fifty-yard run vs. USC in the Pac-12 Championship
Among the plethora of long runs to choose from, McCaffrey’s 50-yard scamper against the Trojans stands out for the way he made USC safety Marvell Tell completely whiff.
On Stanford’s first drive of the second quarter, McCaffrey takes a first-and-10 carry behind the right guard, splitting the nose tackle and linebacker and speeding into open space. With Tell standing directly in front of him, McCaffrey fakes to the right and cuts slightly to the left, all while maintaining his forward momentum to burst past the defenders at either side. That slight change of direction sends Tell sliding by McCaffrey to the ground without even putting a hand on McCaffrey, enabling him to sprint for another 35 yards before he’s pushed out of bounds after a gain of 50.
McCaffrey’s elite ability to change direction while maintaining speed propelled him to plays just like this all season long.
Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.