Christian McCaffrey took to social media Saturday in the euphoric aftermath of Stanford’s last-second win over Notre Dame.
“What a time to be alive,” he posted on Twitter after Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard field capped one of the season’s most thrilling games.
Stanford has gotten off the deck after losing its opener at Northwestern and will play USC in the Pac-12 Conference championship game Saturday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. McCaffrey probably will soon be heading east for Heisman Trophy ceremonies as a finalist for college football’s top individual award.
“Football is happening so fast,” McCaffrey said during a phone interview Tuesday as he walked briskly to his next destination on the Stanford campus. “There’s really no time.”
Things have changed dramatically since Stanford faced USC the first time, in the middle of September.
The Cardinal was an ordinary 1-1 after losing at Northwestern and then struggling early against a Central Florida team that would finish 0-12.
Stanford was unranked and McCaffrey, a sophomore, was largely unknown after rushing for 66 and 58 yards.
He then ripped off 115 rushing yards in a 10-point win over sixth-ranked USC and Stanford was off on what became a national playoff chase.
“I remember how back-and-forth it was,” McCaffrey recalled of first USC game, at the Coliseum.
He expects more of the same Saturday. “They are a fast, athletic, physical team,” he said, “and so are we.”
McCaffrey has fast become known as college football’s most dangerous all-purpose player. He was the joystick during Stanford’s seven-game winning streak. He has run for touchdowns, caught touchdown passes, and even thrown a scoring pass — while also wheeling and dealing on punt and kickoff returns.
McCaffrey established a Stanford single-game record for all-purpose yards with 389 against California, and a single-game rushing record with 243 yards against UCLA.
He enters the Saturday’s game on a different astral plane. McCaffrey has 3,035 all-purpose yards, a Pac-12 season record. The names he passed on that list include Marcus Allen, Glyn Milburn and Reggie Bush.
McCaffrey is so feared that opponents have devised game plans just to stop him. Last week, Notre Dame used starting defensive players on special teams units hoping to contain McCaffrey.
He gained 228 all-purpose yards and the Irish considered it a good night. McCaffrey’s per-game average of 252.9 leads the nation by more than 50 yards a game.
“He’s the No.1 game wrecker,’” Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “Best player on the team. And the idea was to contain him. Based on the numbers, we did that, but one player doesn’t define a victory or a loss.”
Smith’s point: Holding McCaffrey to 94 rushing yards and 3.5 yards a carry created openings for quarterback Kevin Hogan to have a big game.
McCaffrey’s rise comes with a back story filled with twists, interesting tidbits, turns and nuances.
His favorite player growing up was Bush, a player banished from USC’s history books and databases for his role in getting his school penalized by the NCAA.
“I really loved how versatile a guy he was,” McCaffrey said. “How explosive he was. You never knew what he was going to do next. He caught the ball, he ran the ball … he did everything.”
McCaffrey has worn Bush’s No. 5 since high school but said he was never recruited by USC — quite possibly a moot point because both of McCaffrey’s parents attended Stanford.
McCaffrey made clear his infatuation was with Bush, not USC.
“I didn’t really have a favorite team,” he said. “It was more about him being fun to watch.”
McCaffrey broke the Stanford record for all-purpose yards set by Milburn in 1990, the same season Christian’s father, Ed, had 61 catches for the Cardinal.
But if you think Christian’s sprinter’s speed came from his dad, who went on to become an accomplished NFL receiver, you’d be wrong. It emanates from the maternal side of his Stanford tree. Christian’s mother, Lisa, who played soccer at Stanford, is the daughter of Dave Sime, a former world-class sprinter from Duke who was dubbed “Superman in Spikes.”
Sime might have been as famous as Carl Lewis had he not injured his groin after falling off a horse before the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The accident might have cost Sime at least two gold medals.
He returned to the 1960 Rome Olympics as a second-year medical student and finished second in a photo finish to Germany’s Armin Hary in the 100 meters.
McCaffrey said his grandfather has been a mentor and huge influence.
“He’s only a phone call away,” McCaffrey said. “I definitely take advantage of that knowledge. Hearing what he has to say. Little details.”
You can see the sprinter in McCaffrey when he shoots trough a hole in the line. “There are some similarities to coming out of the blocks,” he said, “the sudden, quick-twitch switches when you see a hole.”
McCaffrey needs 216 all-purpose yards Saturday to break the NCAA record of 3,250, set in 1988 by Oklahoma State star Barry Sanders.
Sanders did it in 11 games, and the vast majority of his total came from 2,628 rushing yards. McCaffrey has rushed for 1,640 yards.
Closely following McCaffrey’s record chase is a teammate, Barry Sanders Jr., a senior who has contributed 312 yards rushing this season.
“We have not really talked about it,” McCaffrey said of record.
The question now is whether Stanford and McCaffrey got in their races too late.
The Cardinal overcame that early loss to get back in the national playoff chase, only to suffer another setback to Oregon. However, Stanford enters Saturday a puncher’s chance of making the four-team field.
It might be this simple: Stanford defeats USC for the Pac-12 title and either Clemson or Alabama lose in their respective title games.
“Nothing matters unless we win,” McCaffrey said.
As for national accolades as an individual, whereas Sanders was a clear-cut Heisman winner in 1988 after setting the all-purpose record, McCaffrey is third in most polls behind Alabama tailback Derrick Henry and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
“Whatever those awards, they’re all great,” Stanford Coach David Shaw said after the Notre Dame game. “No one can tell me there’s a more dynamic player in college football.”
McCaffrey is reluctant to make this season about him but said he was honored when the school recently launched a Heisman campaign on his behalf.
“Winning is the most important thing,” he said. “You want to focus on the game and the team.”
McCaffrey might not win the Heisman this year but could be the front-runner in 2016.
Because as anyone who has tried to tackle him knows, he’s tough to catch from behind.