Heading into Stanford’s season opener against the visiting Kansas State Wildcats, it had been almost exactly nine months since the nation last saw Christian McCaffrey razzle and dazzle on the football field. Then, almost exactly nine minutes into the game, the Cardinal’s most electrifying player went back into high-voltage mode to deliver a play for the ages — even if it ultimately didn’t count.
His stunning 97-yard punt return was called back due to a penalty, but in a sense, McCaffrey’s Rubicon-crossing return to announce his new campaign to conquer college football served as a microcosm for Stanford’s overall performance: flashes of brilliance that made little dent in the final box score. Although No. 8 Stanford (1-0) sputtered in the second half of its 26-13 win over Kansas State (0-1), the Cardinal’s overall performance was more complete than the final score suggested.
With Stanford already leading 3-0, Kansas State’s Nick Walsh booted a towering 43-yard punt that threatened to pin the Cardinal inside of their own five-yard line. McCaffrey, back deep on the return, fielded the ball at Stanford’s three-yard line and was immediately engulfed in a sea of purple and white. After securing the catch, Stanford’s Houdini pulled off his greatest escape yet, steamrolling through several potential tackles before cutting back behind his blockers and racing past everything in sight for six captivating points that never saw the light of the scoreboard.
In total, McCaffrey finished with 126 rushing yards on 22 carries to go along with a career-high 7 receptions for 40 yards, as he often served as a safety valve for new starting quarterback Ryan Burns. The senior signal-caller, taking over for the winningest quarterback in program history, Kevin Hogan, also put together stretches of bona fide greatness.
Despite having only attempted one pass in his career heading into his first start, Burns looked poised and comfortable directing the Cardinal offense, going through his progressions and decisively checking down or tucking and running on a number of occasions. When he did decide to take shots downfield in the first half, Burns was equally superb, threading the needle between Kansas State defenders Elijah Lee and Kendall Adams to find Greg Taboada and move the chains on a 3rd and 14. On the same drive — with the Wildcats throwing everything towards stopping McCaffrey — Burns executed a play-action fake and delivered a 40-yard bomb to fifth-year senior Michael Rector, who put Stanford across the goal line for the first time in 2016 (in the same end zone in which he scored the Cardinal’s first touchdown last season) to give Stanford a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Burns, in fact, started the game 10-of-10 on passing attempts and finished 14-of-18 for 156 yards and a touchdown overall, earning rave reviews from his teammates and coaches.
“I thought Burns did a great job,” said fifth-year senior guard Johnny Caspers. “He’s a real worker and it showed with this week and previous weeks of preparation…The guy’s a meticulous film-watcher.”
The senior from Ashburn, Virginia, for his part, was emotional in his postgame press conference, reflecting on his long journey to the starting quarterback spot, rebounding from an offseason suspension his freshman year and bouts of inconsistency early in his career: “I’ve been through a lot in my mind since I’ve been there…You always got to tell yourself ‘Keep going.’”
“Coach Tavita [Pritchard] has been great for me,” Burns continued. “Kevin [Hogan] actually has been great these past three years. He’s one of my closest friends. We still keep in contact. Anytime I have a question, I go to him.”
Even with Burns starting out the game red hot, Shaw stuck to his original plan to work junior Keller Chryst in at quarterback on the team’s third offensive series. On that drive, Chryst completed his only pass of the game, an 11-yarder to McCaffrey, while also laying a pancake block on Kansas State defensive back Duke Shelley on a 35-yard scamper from No. 5 into the end zone. Just like that, it was 17-0 Stanford midway through the second quarter.
“Keller has put out more pancake blocks for me than anyone I think. No offense to [fullback Daniel] Marx,” McCaffrey said, laughing. “No, that’s not true. But anytime you’ve got a quarterback running down the field trying to pancake people, you know you’ve got a special team and a special bond. So he’s an unbelievable guy that comes to work every day with his hard hat on ready to get after it.”
McCaffrey’s first touchdown run of the season was also sparked by a gaping hole on the left side of the line thanks to dominant blocks from Marx, left tackle Casey Tucker, center Jesse Burkett and a pulling Caspers. Much like Burns, the Tunnel Workers Union looked nearly flawless in the first 30 minutes of play.
“In the first half, I thought [the offensive line] was stellar,” Shaw said. “It was very, very good. It was a couple of little tiny things, but for the most part I thought the pass protection was great. I thought the run blocking was well done…Second half I thought we left a little bit out there.”
Caspers echoed Shaw’s sentiment that this young Stanford offensive line both executed well and showed major areas for improvement. The fifth-year senior captain also noted that he has tried using his experience as a first-time starter on the retooled 2014 Stanford offensive line to prepare this new group.
“One of the main things coming from that 2014 season was really being able to focus on issues we were having as an offensive line, really lock into those issues and solve them,” Caspers observed. “We allowed issues to linger instead of correcting them and just having that experience in my back pocket has really helped me.”
As Shaw noted, Stanford’s execution, which looked seamless for much of the first half, took a major nosedive in the latter half hour of the game as Bill Snyder’s Wildcats brought new-look blitz packages and succeeded in bottling up McCaffrey. The Wildcats, who first drew blood at the end of the first half with a field goal, gained a new lease on life when a botched exchange between Burns and McCaffrey put the ball on the ground and allowed K-State linebacker Charmeachealle Moore to return the ensuing fumble 35 yards to the Stanford 29. The Wildcats added another field goal on that possession to cut the deficit to 17-6.
Overall, the Cardinal offense sputtered to a meager 71 total yards in the second half as Snyder’s squad put together another patented performance of staying in the game. A game that once appeared to be heading towards an Iowa-esque route for Stanford suddenly looked wide open, requiring the defense to come to the rescue.
In the fourth quarter, with the score still 17-6, sophomore Quenton Meeks, in his first start at corner, picked off a deep pass from K-State quarterback Jesse Ertz to kill another Wildcat drive.
“It was the focus of our offseason, to really focus all the time on getting interceptions, getting fumbles,” Meeks noted afterwards. “The last two years what we’ve lacked on the defense is takeaways. That’s what great defenses do, they take the ball away. We believe you can’t truly be a great defense unless you take it away, so that was our focus.”
After the Stanford offense failed to capitalize on Meeks’ takeaway, Cardinal punter Jake Bailey, who appears to have seized the starting job after a competition with Alex Robinson, booted another ball high into the night sky before Trenton Irwin downed it at the two-yard line.
Count Shaw among those impressed by Bailey’s performance on Friday: “I’m not the expert on punting and kicking at all. But when a guy kicks the ball and you go like this [gesturing head towards the sky], that means you’ve got a strong leg…You saw the two punts inside the five-yard line, those were beautiful. You can’t do them any better.”
With Bailey’s leg turning the field position battle on its head and pinning the Wildcats deep in their own territory, Lance Anderson’s defense was ready to add some points of its own. On the Wildcats’ first play up against their own end zone, defensive tackle Jordan Watkins sloughed off his blocker and burst into the backfield to bring down Ertz for a safety, increasing Stanford’s advantage to 19-6. Watkins, part of Stanford’s six-deep defensive line, broke out with the best game of his college career with a performance that Shaw noted spoke to the benefit of the team’s overall defensive depth.
After the Wildcats added a touchdown of their own following an onside kick to come within one possession at 19-13, the Cardinal put the nail in the coffin with McCaffrey racing to the end zone on an untouched 41-yard dash out of one of the Cardinal’s jumbo formations featuring extra linemen Nick Wilson and Nate Herbig. Stanford’s 26-13 lead would hold until the final whistle.
“We owed it to the team to really get a drive going,” said McCaffrey. “The O-line did an excellent job on that play from the get-go. I did a power play and big hole and the rest was green grass.”
“It’s fun chasing 5 to the end zone,” Caspers said of the play. “It’s a euphoric feeling. [McCaffrey’s] such an explosive guy. You really just need to give him one shot and he’ll be out of the gate. Fortunately, we were able to do that a couple of times today.”
After surviving a physical battle marked by stretches of both dominance and inconsistency, the talk among the Stanford players and coaching staff after the game centered around playing “cleaner” ahead of the Cardinal’s next contest against USC in two weeks.
“It’s one of those things where we started fast, but we’ve got to find a way to stay focused throughout the second, third quarter and find a way to finish at the end,” McCaffrey remarked afterwards.
Following a bye this upcoming week, which will undoubtedly focus on “cleaning” the inconsistency in Week 1, the Cardinal will host USC to open up Pac-12 play on Sept. 17 in another nationally televised broadcast.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.