Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) stiff-arms Southern California's Iman Marshall on a kickoff-return during the first half of a Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Stanford, McCaffrey win Pac-12, but miss playoffs

Stanford may have come within a two-point conversation of a trip to the College Football Playoff, but they won’t leave without a lovely parting gift.

Stanford turned back Southern California in the Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday night, 41-22, and when the Cardinal didn’t get the necessary help from above, they were rewarded with their third trip to the Rose Bowl in four years. They likely will meet Ohio State on New Year’s Day, with the CPF selection committee expected to announce today that Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan State are the final four teams.

After USC closed to within 27-22 early in the fourth quarter, Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey capped a historic 461-yard, three-touchdown performance with a pair of TDs to break the game open.

“If the worst thing we do is go to the Rose Bowl, I think that’s pretty cool,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Once again, we’re not in charge of that. We’ll go where they tell us to go.”

If not for a 38-36 loss to Oregon at home last month, Stanford probably would be headed to the tournament with a chance to secure its first undisputed national championship in 89 years.

To gain a CFP berth, No. 7 Stanford needed two things to take place— its own victory over USC coupled with a North Carolina win over No. 1 Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game or a Florida win over No. 2 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game.

But Alabama took care of business in a 29-15 rout earlier in the day, then Clemson followed suit with a 45-37 victory hours later. That left the Pac-12 as the odd power conference out in the four-team tournament.

“The question is, should there be an eight-team playoff? Absolutely,” Shaw said. “If you win one of the big five conferences, should you be in the playoffs? Absolutely. Eventually, I think we’re going to get there. We’re not there now, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Almost everything the 6-foot, 201-pound McCaffrey accomplished in his sophomore season has defied logic.

In the third quarter, McCaffrey broke the NCAA record for all-purpose yards (3,250) that the legendary Barry Sanders had set in the 1988 season.

“I know (Sanders) did it in a couple less games — I don’t know if you take that into consideration or not —- but that’s a huge honor,” McCaffrey said. “That’s a guy I have posters (of) on my wall growing up. So to have my name mentioned even in the same category as him is definitely an honor.”.    

“The best player in the nation,” Shaw called McCaffrey.  “I don’t know if that’s even a question. There’s nobody in the nation is doing what he’s doing. It’s not even a debate.”

McCaffrey and quarterback Kevin Hogan pulled off a rare triple — each caught a touchdown pass, ran for one and threw one in the same game.

Hogan completed 9 of 12 passes for 144 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 30 yards and scored once on the ground.

“Someone asked me about the Mount Rushmore of Stanford quarterbacks and if Kevin Hogan deserved to be on it,” Shaw said. “I said, ‘Absolutely,’ regardless of the outcome of this game. (John) Elway, (Jim) Plunkett, (Andrew) Luck and Kevin — I don’t think it’s even a question.”

USC trailed 13-3 at halftime, but a different team came out in the third quarter. The Trojans scored pair of touchdowns in six minutes to take a 16-13 advantage.

Not long after Stanford regained the lead on Hogan’s 7-yard run, linebacker Blake Martinez made the defensive play of the game when he blindsided quarterback Cody Kessler and forced a fumble. Teammate Solomon Thomas scooped up the ball and ran 34 yards for a touchdown and an eventual 27-16 lead.

Not even a pregame visit by 49ers running back Reggie Bush could help USC in the debut of Clay Helton as full-time head coach. The contact was his first with the team since 2010, when NCAA sanctions forced him to cut ties with the program.

Bush was among several players invited to the game by the Pac-12 as part of its All-Century team, which was announced one day earlier.

It was another guy in a No. 5 jersey who did his best Bush impersonation in front of announced crowd of 58,476 fans.

“I can’t talk enough about the offensive line and the holes, especially in the first half,” McCaffrey said. “We knew that, if we wanted to win the game, we were going to have to run the ball efficiently, and those guys were unbelievable.”

pladewski@sfexaminer.com

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