Christian McCaffrey got his million yards — well, OK it was only 284, but it seemed like a million — and the Big Game remained in Stanford’s possession. But let’s not forget that for the first time in five years Cal had a lead, if a short-lived one.
Early on, the Golden Bears were in front, 10-7. Very early on. Otherwise, when the 119th Big Game came to a thudding conclusion Saturday evening, it was Stanford in front, 45-31, a record-tying seventh-straight win for the Cardinal.
On a gloomy, dark day when a light rain fell and the stands at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley were far from packed — announced attendance was 52,266 — we again were made aware why Cal ranks 126th in rush defense among the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
The Bears can’t stop anyone, much less McCaffrey, who a season past as a freshman was second in voting for the Heisman Trophy. “He’s a once in a lifetime player,” said Sonny Dykes, who is now 0-4 against Stanford as the Cal coach.
Whose lifetime is uncertain, but McCaffrey had 22 yards in receptions and 11 more on a punt return is special. Yes, he gets great blocking, and sometimes it seemed he was untouched for five or six yards — or on the burst in the opening moments of the third quarter Dykes said decided the game — 90 yards.
But as Cal receiver Chad Hansen, who caught two touchdown passes, said McCaffrey is impressive. And he is.
Unlike the Cal defense. The Bears are 4-7 with a game against UCLA Saturday.
“You’ve got to play defense,” agreed Dykes. “Otherwise there’s so much pressure on the offense to score every time.”
Not even Stanford, which is 8-3 and going to a bowl game somewhere, sometime, can do that.
Dykes said the Bears “tackle more than anybody” in practice, but the preparation doesn’t matter when key defensive starters are missing. Also, Cal players have been out of position when trying to stop the other guys.
No matter what position the defenders were in, they seemed incapable of halting McCaffrey, who a year ago against Cal gained 389 all-purpose yards (rushing, receiving, returning). Now the only question is whether he’ll turn pro early.
“He’s a great player,” said Cal defensive end Devonte Wilson. “He’s going to have tremendous success in his career. We just didn’t get the job done stopping him in this game. He’s a hell of a player.”
So, seemingly is Davis Webb, the graduate transfer who as Cal’s quarterback this year, replacing Jared Goff — who became the No. 1 pick in last spring’s NFL draft — has thrown for 3,994 yards, 393 Saturday on 34 completions.
Stanford, of course, kept The Axe, the trophy that’s been around for more than a century. And Cardinal coach David Shaw, now 6-0 against Cal, rain or shine, was properly in awe of Mr. McCaffrey.
“I don’t know what else I can say,” is what Shaw did say. “Two years I’ve kind of run out of words.”
If McCaffrey hasn’t stopped running out the yards.
“He’s not the biggest guy,” said Shaw of the 6-foot, 200-pound McCaffrey, “but you can’t tell him that. He runs like he’s a big back. He’s going to run between the tackles. He’s going to make people miss, and he has the speed in the open to finish the runs in the end zone.
“An up and down year for us offensively, but he’s been one of the mainstays. When we need him he comes through. I’m just impressed by him every day.”
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.