On the first day of 2016, and the last day of his college career at Iowa, Austin Blythe watched in helpless, envious awe.
From the sideline, the Hawkeyes offensive lineman could do nothing. In a blur of Stanford Cardinal red, Christian McCaffrey ran away with the Rose Bowl.
“I want to forget it,” Blythe, the starting right guard for the Rams, said last week, a blank expression befalling his face.
This is common. When it comes to facing McCaffrey — the Carolina Panthers’ third-year ballcarrier who can grind out yards between the tackles, slip past opponents with bursts of speed and lightning-quick feet, and line up at almost any skill position on offense — most walk away disappointed.
“A guy that has the ability to contribute in all phases, he competes without the ball,” said Rams coach Sean McVay, whose team will face McCaffrey and the Panthers in Carolina on Sunday. “The things that he can do, even going back to his career at Stanford. He’s an impressive player.”
After a solid rookie season two years ago, the sturdy 6-foot, 200-pound running back had a breakout 2018. He averaged five yards per carry en route to a 1,098-yard season and caught 107 passes for 867 yards. The Associated Press selected him second-team All-Pro. This year, he is counted among the most feared offensive weapons.
“He’s shown through his first two years that he’s more than capable of carrying the load, being the No. 1 running back and also being a dangerous weapon out of the backfield,” Rams linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Running routes, running the RPO, zone reads, everything that can give a defense trouble.”
Though the Rams haven’t faced McCaffrey, having last played the Panthers in November 2016, plenty of their players have experience against the do-it-all tailback. Blythe’s might have been the worst.
As with the rest of the college football world during the fall of 2015, the then-Iowa offensive lineman had heard of the growing Stanford legend. By the time the Hawkeyes arrived in Pasadena for the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl, the record-breaking running back was bordering on mythical status.
McCaffrey delivered on the hype.
On the first play from scrimmage, he lined up in the backfield and ran a short seam route into the flat. A linebacker tried to cover him, but was frozen by the running back’s stutter-step. Then McCaffrey hit the jets, hauling in a pass across the middle and outrunning the defense for a 70-yard touchdown.
“At that point, it was just a play,” Blythe said. “Then, they kept piling on and piling on.”
On the next drive, McCaffrey touched the ball five times in eight plays as Stanford marched into the end zone. Less than a minute into the second quarter, he returned a punt 68 yards to make it 28-0. His 368 all-purpose yards set a Rose Bowl record. The Cardinal rolled 45-16.
Uninterested in reliving the nightmare, Blythe repeated himself: “I want to forget it.”
McCaffrey was so good at Stanford, where he had more than 4,500 yards and 29 touchdowns as a starter in 2015 and 2016, he overshadowed the gaudy numbers Jared Goff was putting up at California on the other side of San Francisco Bay.
Though Goff was drafted higher, McCaffrey was the All-American, Heisman Trophy finalist and standard-bearer for offensive production in the Pac-12 Conference.
“At first, I wasn’t a believer,” said former Rams running back Justin Davis, who played against McCaffrey during his career at USC. “When he started to come into his own, he’s the real deal. I’ve got nothing but respect for him. That man is a baller. Certified.”
Another of McCaffrey’s best collegiate performances came against Davis and the Trojans in the 2015 Pac-12 championship game. In the third quarter of that back-and-forth contest, in which McCaffrey already had thrown his second career passing touchdown, USC took a 16-13 lead. One drive later, McCaffrey put the Cardinal ahead for good with a 67-yard catch and run to the end zone.
In the press box, USC defensive coaches screamed and cursed. On the field, Davis could hardly watch.
“One of the worst memories of my life,” Davis said. “I’ll never forget that.”
When Rams linebacker Corey Littleton and nose tackle Greg Gaines played against McCaffrey in 2015 as members of Washington’s defense, the running back recorded his first game with 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving.
In the NFL, McCaffrey also has helped the Panthers to victories over Matthews and the Green Bay Packers in 2017, and new Rams safety Eric Weddle and the Baltimore Ravens in 2018.
“To be able to run the ball as well as he can and catch the ball out of the backfield ... and be able to be on the field on third down for protections,” Weddle said, “there’s only a select few.”
Even fewer, it seems, are stories of success against McCaffrey. Gaines has one, when Washington clamped down on Stanford’s offense in 2016 (after Littleton had graduated) and limited McCaffrey to fewer than 80 total yards and no touchdowns.
Gaines smiled as he recalled that game: “We stomped him that year.”
It’s a moment he cherishes because when it comes to facing McCaffrey, most memories are far less pleasant.