Sixteen consecutive points had given USC the lead and considerable momentum in the third quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game. Facing third down with its offense struggling, Stanford head coach David Shaw put the ball in the hands of Christian McCaffrey, and the sophomore did what he's done all year.
McCaffrey beat USC linebacker Olajuwon Tucker on a drag route, catching a pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan for the first down — but McCaffrey went for so much more. He blazed down field, evaded safety Chris Hawkins with a hesitation, jab-stepped toward the middle of the field and a sharp cut back to the sideline. Only after cornerback Kevon Seymour caught him from behind 67 yards later was McCaffrey down.
The question posed to McCaffrey after the game wasn't how he'd made such a remarkable play, which proved to be a game-changer — Hogan scored on a quarterback-keeper to give Stanford the lead for good immediately after. Rather, McCaffrey was asked why it hadn't been more spectacular, ending at the 5-yard line instead of in the end zone.
"Me and you are wondering the same thing right now," McCaffrey laughed.
Throughout his record-setting 2015 campaign, McCaffrey made the extraordinary seem ordinary, and he did so in multiple phases. Whether catching passes — like that tide-turning 67-yarder or his 28-yard touchdown reception later in the second half — or carrying the ball — as he did to the tune of 207 yards in the Pac-12 Championship Game — McCaffrey always found ways to impact the course of games.
He finished the season with 1,847 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, 540 yards receiving and another four scores, 1,024 yards in kickoff returns with yet another touchdown, and he passed for two touchdowns. He very nearly returned a punt for a touchdown against USC, which would have put him in company with only two players in college football to score via rush, reception, pass, kickoff and punt return in the same season: C.J. Spiller in 2009, and Heisman winner Reggie Bush in '05.
Indeed, no player in college football contributed more to his team in a more diverse manner than McCaffrey, hence the chants of "Heisman" his Stanford teammates broke out into during the Pac-12 title trophy presentation.
Shaw refrained from politicking on behalf of McCaffrey's Heisman candidacy during the regular season. But after the running back amassed 461 all-purpose yards in the Pac-12 Championship Game, not counting his 11-yard touchdown pass to Hogan, Shaw gave an impassioned campaign pitch the coach's former Stanford teammate and current New Jersey Senator Cory Booker would have been proud of.
"What Christian has done is phenomenal," Shaw said, remarking McCaffrey is "the best player in the nation."
McCaffrey doesn't need mere rhetoric to make his case, however. The numbers speak volumes, and put him in league with Heisman contenders of years past.
McCaffrey broke 2009 Heisman finalist Toby Gerhart's Stanford single-game rushing record in October, accruing 243 yards in a rout of UCLA. Not content etching his name into Cardinal history, McCaffrey broke one of college football's most hallowed individual marks when he surpassed Barry Sanders' mark of 3,250 all-purpose yards, gained in Sanders' epic 1988 season at Oklahoma State.
Sanders ran away with the Heisman Trophy that season.
McCaffrey downplayed the record somewhat, pointing out Sanders set the mark in 11 games.
"I know he did it in a couple less games," he said. "I don't know if you take that into consideration or not."
Consider it all you want, but bear in mind that Sanders' mark stood untouched for 27 years. Plenty of other Heisman winners and assorted college football legends had opportunities to set a new record with the benefit of additional games; none did so before McCaffrey.
The only logical manner in which to recognize such a historic season is to cap it with the Heisman Trophy.