Here's what you do. Fire up the flux capacitor and take a trip back to Palo Alto in the spring of 1991. You'll be able to find me in any of a number of places -- playing softball on the intramural fields, shooting hoops on the courts behind Sterling Quad, or sitting in front of a computer terminal pounding out a paper in LOTS. When you get to me, ask me to sit down, and do your best to explain that a time will come when Stanford will play in three Rose Bowls in four years. You had better bring proof, because there's no way I'll ever believe you.
Even in 2015, sitting in front of another computer as I pound out this recap, I'm having a hard time believing what we've been watching over the past several years. In fact, I'm having a hard time believing what we saw last night as Stanford clinched that third Rose Bowl bid in four years with a dominant win over USC in the Pac-12 Championship game.
The game opened, as always, with the Cardinal on offense, and it didn't take long for Christian McCaffrey to make his presence known, as he rushed for 13 yards on the first snap of the game. No one was worried after Notre Dame held McCaffrey in check last week, but it was nice to see him having that early success. Two plays later he gobbled up twenty more yards, then had six on the next play and eight a couple plays after that. He would finish the drive with four carries for 47 yards. Nothing to worry about.
A holding penalty on wide receiver Rollin Stallworth negated an eleven-yard touchdown reception for McCaffrey, and the drive eventually stalled. Last week's hero, Conrad Ukropina, came in to drill a thirty-yard field goal, and Stanford had a 3-0 lead.
The Trojan offense came out on the field looking to answer. Under the previous head coach the Trojans ran a high-paced offense. They certainly weren't as frenetic as Oregon or Washington State, but they always got to the line in a hurry, and quarterback Cody Kessler was the focal point of the offense. Things changed under Coach Clay Helton. USC had been leaning heavily on their power running game over the past month, so the Stanford defense would be facing an offense that had changed considerably since the regular season meeting back in September.
Kessler managed to scramble for a first down on this possession, but three plays later they were punting the ball back to the Cardinal. The more things change...
Stanford's second possession offered more of the same. Once again the Trojan front four offered little resistance to McCaffrey as he gashed them for 46 yards on seven carries. (Yes, McCaffrey rushed for 93 yards in the first quarter.) Hogan, meanwhile, looked to be getting off to a shaky start, but only if you believe the stat sheet. He completed only one of four passes in the first quarter, but each of those incompletions was a perfectly thrown ball that could've -- or even should've -- been caught. All of the talk during and after this game would be about Christian McCaffrey, and rightly so, but Hogan is playing at an extraordinarily high level, and that cannot be ignored. When Trenton Irwin dropped a pass on this drive, it was Hogan's third incompletion. Over the final three quarters he would be a perfect eight for eight.
Speaking of McCaffrey and Hogan, the first play of the second quarter was a thing of absolute beauty. In a brilliantly designed play on 2nd and 9 from the USC 11, McCaffrey lined up wide to the left, and Hogan tucked under center with a fullback and tailback Barry Sanders behind him in an I formation. Even though the Trojans must've been keyed on McCaffrey as a potential receiver, they also had to be wary of the run. Stanford had ended the first quarter with ten consecutive running plays, and with six offensive linemen and a tight end lined up shoulder to shoulder at the line of scrimmage, even the most alert Trojan defenders had to be thinking run.
And indeed, Hogan did hand the ball off to Sanders, but Sanders quickly flipped the ball to McCaffrey, who was sprinting back into the backfield. Meanwhile, Hogan had slipped out of the backfield and was heading towards the corner of the end zone. Tight end Dalton Schultz had run a post route to occupy the safety, and there was no one within ten yards of Hogan. McCaffrey simply rolled to the right and threw a spiral that would've made Andrew Luck proud. Hogan made the easy grab, and Stanford had a 10-0 lead.
USC's second possession was even more uninspiring than its first. A three-yard rush followed by two incompletions, and the Trojans were punting the ball back to the Cardinal, who kept doing what it had been doing. The first play of the Stanford drive was a simple handoff to McCaffrey -- that went for 50 yards to the USC 15. When the Cardinal arrived at 1st and goal at the USC 4 just three plays after that, it seemed like someone would have to stop this fight. Stanford had thoroughly dominated the game in every aspect up to this point:
• Stanford had run 28 plays for 238 total yards to USC's 9 for 15.
• Stanford had controlled the clock for 14:36 to USC's 3:45
• McCaffrey had already run for 149 yards.
A touchdown here -- and how could they not score a touchdown? -- would give the Cardinal a 17-0 lead and a virtual lock on the game, even though less than five minutes had passed in the second quarter. But then things went awry. A false start from Josh Garnett on second down pushed the ball back to the 7, and the Trojans were able to hold the line on third down, forcing another Ukropina field goal. Sure, it was 13-0, but considering the way the game was going, it could've been much, much worse for USC.
But the Trojans weren't able to take advantage of this second life. On their third possession of the game, they actually went backwards, thanks to a five-yard penalty and an eleven-yard sack of Kessler by Brennan Scarlett. Even the most optimistic Trojan fans must've been having trouble seeing the bright side of things at this point, and things looked even worse when McCaffrey took the USC punt and ran it back 31 yards to the Trojan 19.
Once again the Cardinal looked poised to step on the Trojans' throats, but once again the opportunity was missed. Bryce Love nearly made it into the end zone on a nifty 13 yard run up the middle to set up 1st and goal, but two cracks from McCaffrey and another from Remound Wright left Stanford about twelve inches short of the goal line. Coach Shaw made the right decision and kept his offense out on the field, and they tried to get tricky. Hogan faked the ball to Wright and was looking to pass to a wide open tight end, but the play never had a chance. Hogan was engulfed by USC's Porter Gustin just a beat after the fake handoff, and the Trojans were still alive.
For the first time all night, the USC offense showed it had some heart as they strung together first downs behind the hard running of tailback Justin Davis and the downfield strength of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. They crossed into Stanford territory for the first time with just under two minutes to play, and as they continued to push deeper, the reality that Stanford might head to halftime with only a six-point lead was more than a little disconcerting. The drive eventually stalled when Kessler and Smith-Schuster came up three yards short on a 3rd and 7, forcing an Alex Wood field goal from forty yards out with ten seconds left in the half.
After being thoroughly dominated during the first half, suddenly the Trojans were back in the game, and when they took the opening kickoff in the second half and promptly plowed their way down the field, Stanford fans everywhere felt their hearts slowly climbing into their throats. The power running game we had been warned about was in full effect, with Justin Davis doing most of the work, running four times for 43 yards, before Kessler found Jahleel Pinner for a one-yard touchdown to pull his team within four points at 13-9. (The extra point was missed.)
Things got a bit stickier when the Cardinal offense was forced to punt after just six plays, and they got stickier still when the Trojans put together another strong drive that ended with another touchdown, this one on a 27-yard run from Ronald Jones to take an improbable, inexplicable 16-13 lead.
I have to admit here that I didn't watch this sequence of events live. Because of my daughter's high school basketball game and a balky DVR, I picked up the game live in the fourth quarter, so when I watched USC take this lead two hours after I had watched David Shaw hoist the championship trophy, I did so with curiosity and disbelief, not fear or trepidation. This ten minute stretch of the game was in such opposition to the other fifty minutes that it was almost comical. Had I been watching live, however, I'm certain I wouldn't have seen the humor.
Thankfully, USC's lead was short-lived. On 3rd and 6 from the Stanford 26, Hogan dropped back to pass and looked almost immediately to McCaffrey, who had looped out of the backfield. McCaffrey had been picked up by linebacker Olajuwon Tucker, but that matchup wasn't fair. McCaffrey only needed to give Tucker a hint of a move to the outside to lose him, and Hogan hit him in stride in the middle of the field with no one around him. At full speed in the blink of an eye, McCaffrey then focused on safety Chris Hawkins and made him his puppet, pulling first one string and then another to turn Hawkins around not once but twice before streaking past him. They eventually pulled him down at the seven, but it ended up being a 67-yard catch and run for McCaffrey, just another in a long series of highlights for the best player in the country.
Kevin Hogan scored on a designed quarterback run on the next play, and order was restored. Stanford had the lead again at 20-16.
The Trojan offense was still feeling good, however, and they looked ready to respond as a they put together a series of first downs to push out to their own 43. But the game changed once again on 3rd and 11 when Kessler dropped back to pass and looked to keep the drive going. Linebacker Blake Martinez, an injury concern coming into the game, came up the middle on a blitz. He shot past USC's fourth-string center (yes, fourth string) and slammed into Kessler, knocking the ball loose. Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas scooped up the loose ball without breaking stride and rumbled into the end zone. Just like that, the score was 27-16, and all USC's third quarter success had been negated.
The Trojans, however, kept fighting. They used seven plays to travel 65 yards in just 2:35, with the last twelve yards coming on a surprise run from Kessler, and somehow they were still in the game. Even though the two-point conversion was blown up by Solomon Thomas, the Trojans were still within one score at 27-22.
Kevin Hogan hit his first two passes of the ensuing drive to give the Cardinal a first down at the Stanford 39, then McCaffrey ran twice for six and eight to earn another at the USC 47, and eventually the drive -- and the game -- arrived at its tipping point, 3rd and 2 at the USC 28 with less than seven minutes remaining in the Pac-12 season. Knowing they could ill afford to fall behind by two scores with so little time left to play, the Trojans would have to come with some pressure. Stanford, of course, was expecting this. Hogan lined up in the shotgun with McCaffrey and Dalton Schultz standing beside him for blitz protection, but when McCaffrey realized that he wasn't needed, he shrewdly skipped through the line to give his quarterback a checkdown option.
The play was made possible by Dalton Schultz. Last spring David Shaw told me that even though Schultz hadn't yet played a single down, he was already the team's best blocking tight end, and he proved it on this play. USC's best defender, Su'a Cravens, came on the blitz, and Schultz dominated him, turning him immediately and pushing him through the pocket from left to right to give Hogan time to find McCaffrey. By the time the ball got to McCaffrey, seven USC defenders were on the Stanford side of the line of scrimmage, meaning there really weren't any Trojans left to make a play. McCaffrey made his way to the end zone without being challenged, and Stanford had that two score lead at 34-22 with just 6:33 to play.
The game felt over at that point, but the Trojans still had a glimmer of hope. Finally forced to abandon the running game, Cody Kessler came out firing, completing four passes to earn two first downs and move the ball to the USC 44, but that's as far as they would get. Facing 4th and 17 with less than five minutes to play, Kessler's desperation pass fell harmlessly to the grass, and that was pretty much that.
Sure, the Cardinal took over on the USC 37, and sure, Kevin Hogan would hit Devon Cajuste with a cold-hearted 18-yard strike on 4th and 3, and sure, Christian McCaffrey would rip the Trojans' heart out with a ten-yard touchdown run through a crowd of exhausted defenders, but all that did was make the final score Stanford 41, USC 22. The game was over long before any of that happened, certainly long before linebacker Joey Alfieri pulled Kessler to the ground for a seven-yard sack on the game's final play.
It will be quite some time before we'll have the proper perspective to appreciate the full magnitude of what happened in this game. Christian McCaffrey was absolutely amazing. Just two weeks after setting a Stanford record for all-purpose yardage in a single game, McCaffrey was even better against the Trojans. He had 207 yards rushing, 105 yards receiving, and 149 yards returning kicks for a total of 461 all-purpose yards, a new Stanford record and the sixth-highest total in NCAA history. (Oh, and he broke Barry Sanders's 27-year-old APY record with 3,496.) To understand how completely McCaffrey dominated this game, look no further than the stat sheet. After his 461 yards, the next highest total on the Stanford side was Hogan, with 29 yards, and he had more yards than USC's top four players combined. It was the type of performance that could capture people's imaginations and elevate him to the top of Heisman ballots around the country. No one in the country can match what McCaffrey has done on the field this year. Hopefully the voters will see that.
One other note. Both McCaffrey and Hogan scored a rare trifecta as each player passed for, ran for, and caught a touchdown. No one had done that in more than a decade, and Stanford had two players turn the trick in one game.
But Saturday's game was about much more than those two phenomenal players. By defeating the USC Trojans, the preeminent program in Pac-12 history and one of the most storied teams in college football, the Cardinal clinched a berth in the Rose Bowl for the third time in four years.
It's certainly tempting to look back on the debacle that was the season opener against Northwestern or to dwell on those two fumbled snaps in the fourth quarter against Oregon. A win in either of those two games would likely have put the Cardinal into the playoffs, but those who fixate on those moments and what might have been had things gone differently, often forget about how easily other games could have swung in the opponents' favor as well. Folks in South Bend are still wishing Conrad Ukropina's last-second field goal had missed its mark, just as Washington State fans are wondering where their season might have ended had Erik Powell made six field goals on Halloween night instead of only five.
This is how college football works. A butterfly flaps its wings in China, and a punter drops a snap on the final play in Ann Arbor. Chaos theory reigns supreme, and no matter which way the pendulum swings -- whether computers or twelve people in a conference room are ranking the teams -- there will always be controversy, there will always be questions, and there will always be teams with broken hearts.
The good news for Stanford is that consolation awaits in the Rose Bowl. On January 1st the Cardinal will run out of the tunnel and into a beautiful Pasadena afternoon to play on the grandest stage in the sport, and all of this will be forgotten. The Rose Bowl cures all.