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Stanford's Christian McCaffrey shows the rest of the country what it missed

You believe it now, America?

Do you finally believe this country's best college football player is the one who lost the Heisman Trophy?

Do you finally believe this country's most breathtaking college football player is the one with an ordinary build, from a brainy school, with a teenage slouch and a child-like smile?

While he was sprinting, you were sleeping. While he was making history in Palo Alto, you were paying attention to Tuscaloosa. While he was breaking records, you were buying into stereotypes.

But surely now you see, you must see, after 102-year-old Granddaddy jumped out of his chair Friday afternoon, threw open the doors to his sun-kissed Pasadena bungalow, and introduced him.

America, the Rose Bowl would like you to meet Christian McCaffrey.

Yeah, that was him, No. 5, green grass stains streaking down the side of his white uniform, black headband bunched on his brown hair, Rose Bowl history in his shoes.

Yep, that was the Stanford running back who juked and zagged and darted around television screens like a distressed bug in leading the Cardinal to a dominating 45-16 win over alleged Big Ten power Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

"Like somebody you create in a video game," Cardinal receiver Francis Owusu said.

McCaffrey scored the game's first touchdown by running from the Arroyo Seco to Alhambra in the game's first 15 seconds. He scored Stanford's fourth touchdown on a swirling punt return that left black-shirted Iowa players scattered across the grass like skid marks.

He ran, he caught, here one minute, gone the next, 172 rushing yards, 105 receiving yards, and the only place he finally stopped was the Rose Bowl record books. His name will remain etched there for the immediate future as his 368 all-purpose yards are the most in Rose Bowl history. He's also the only player in this game to have more than 100 yards running and receiving.

None of those marks were perhaps as impressive as his countless sideline hugs in the game's roaring waning moments, the 19-year-old sophomore showing uncommon gratitude to everyone from sweaty starter to clean-uniformed subs to dudes on crutches. McCaffrey embraced teammates, coaches, ballboys, administrators, the impact player showing his true self not in his stardom, but in reveling in being just one of the gang.

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Watching the scene was his father, Ed McCaffrey, a former Super Bowl champion receiver who smiled with pride.

"He signed up for football just to do something with his friends and be part of something bigger than himself," Ed said. "For him, today is about winning the game and having fun."

Sure enough, only one postgame question stumped the younger McCaffrey, and it was about his individual numbers. When asked if this was his best game, McCaffrey said, "I don't know how to answer that.''

He then paused and added, "It's so fun when a team can come together and gel. … Just love playing with these guys."

Yet even with all of his teammate love, McCaffrey will be most celebrated for his numbers, and so far the one that history will most remember is an unsettling No. 2.

McCaffrey finished second in this year's Heisman Trophy voting to Alabama running back Derrick Henry even though, at the time of the voting, McCaffrey had already set the NCAA season record for all-purpose yards.

"It's criminal that he did not win the Heisman, it's criminal," Stanford guard Joshua Garnett said.

The outcome was crazy, it was wrong, and it was directly tied to the Pac-12's weak position with its television partners, as seven of Stanford's 13 games before Friday were played at 10 p.m. or later on the East Coast and in the South, where huge Heisman voting blocs reside.

Believe it or not, the Rose Bowl was the first chance for many folks to see a star that Pac-12 followers have been raving about all season. If viewers still didn't believe McCaffrey deserved the Heisman, the Rose Bowl was filled with people who were happy to remind him.

"Heis-man, Heis-man," chanted the Stanford cheering section early in the game.

"Heis-man, Heis-man," chanted the fan who interrupted McCaffrey's postgame TV interview

"Heis-man, Heis-man," chanted McCaffrey's own teammates during the postgame award ceremony, so loud that it drowned out his remarks.

Later, however, the words of his coach were unmistakable.

"I think he was the best player in America before this game, so I think it's just the icing on the cake for us," David Shaw said. "I do think it's a shame that a lot of people didn't get a chance to see him during the course of the year. Apparently the games were too late.''

McCaffrey,whom Southland fans can appreciate after watching him torch UCLA and USC this season for a total of 1,079 all-purpose yards — that is not a misprint — went to work early Friday.

On the game's first play from scrimmage, McCaffrey streaked across the field on a slant pattern, caught a pass from Kevin Hogan around the 35-yard line, and literally ran away from the entire Iowa defense for a 75-yard touchdown pass.

Eleven seconds gone, the Heisman debate was over, and Iowa was reeling.

"He's a great running back, everybody saw that today and everybody's seen it all season long," Iowa safety Jordan Lomax said

On Stanford's second possession, McCaffrey made more magic. He ran up the middle for five yards, right for 22 yards, left for 19 yards, caught a screen pass that he somehow turned into a dozen yards, ran a direct snap for seven yards, then watched Hogan finish the push with an eight-yard touchdown run.

Dizzy yet? Less than four minutes into the game, McCaffrey was already the leader for Heisman Trophy voting for next year and, oh yeah, Iowa was done.

"He makes people fall," Hogan said.

The kid wasn't finished. At the start of the second quarter, McCaffrey caught a punt and juked about half of the population of Iowa City — including leaving Iowa's Josey Jewell in a heap at midfield — en route to a 63-yard touchdown return.

"He's a guy who can move around you," Jewell said later, shaking his head.

By now, most folks were thinking that nothing could stop this kid, but it turns out, those folks were wrong. On Stanford's next possession, McCaffrey danced 73 yards on yet another touchdown run, but it was nullified because of a needless holding call on Stanford's Devon Cajuste. .

Yet McCaffrey kept falling forward, literally, showing the true meaning of the phrase "all-purpose," by contributing to the Cardinals' fifth touchdown by playing dead on the fake-fumble-turned-into-a-touchdown-pass.

Now, one more time, about the lost Heisman trophy…

"I play for my teammates, I play for God and my family," McCaffrey said. "At the end of the day, whether I win anything or don't, that's the reason why I play and that keeps me motivated."

You hear that, America? He doesn't really care if you've been watching. But now you have. And now you know.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 02, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Rest of the country missed out on something special in McCaffrey" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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