Christian McCaffrey scored two first-half touchdowns, but receiver Michael Rector made the game-breaking rushing play that sealed Stanford's 27-10 Pac-12-opening victory over USC on Saturday night at Stanford Stadium.
With Stanford leading 20-10, and after a play fake to McCaffrey, Rector took an end around into the open field. He broke a tackle at the 12 to score with 3:26 left in the third quarter to give the Cardinal the gap it needed to hold off the Trojans.
After USC closed to within 17-10 on its first second-half possession, the Stanford defense held the Trojans scoreless on their next four possessions, including an end zone interception off a deflected pass by Noor Davis with 1:47 left, to close out the game.
The stops allowed Stanford to add to its lead and to use up time on long possessions. The result was the prototype Stanford victory – grinding time-consuming drives with some timely passes, flair from McCaffrey, and a rested defense doing its part.
"If we get a two-score lead in the second half, we're going to run it," said Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "The way we're playing on offense and playing on defense, we're a tough team to beat."
McCaffrey was a workhorse, carrying the ball 30 times – three short of his career-high – for 165 yards (5.5 yards per carry). He also had four catches for 73 yards, and one kickoff return for 22. His all-purpose total of 260 yards marked his eighth consecutive game of 200 or more.
"There are definitely games you need to be grinding in the hole and you need to push in the trenches," McCaffrey said. "And sometimes when the game's on the line, we're OK with getting five, five, five, 12, five, four yards a pop if that's what it takes to win. I mean, that's what they're giving us. But I'm trying to do everything I can every single time I touch the ball."
McCaffrey scored on a 56-yard pass play from Ryan Burns in the first quarter and closed the half with a one-yard scoring plunge. In two games, McCaffrey has scored four touchdowns, including three of 35 yards or more.
Nearly every McCaffrey carry was between the tackles, and he still has 12 carries of 6 or more yards.
"I like to get physical when I have to," McCaffrey said.
"Up front, we really gelled," Shaw said. "We were looking for that improvement on the offensive line this week. I thought we got that."
McCaffrey was complemented by Bryce Love, who returned to action after missing the opener with an injury. Love had 11 carries for 54 yards and was able to spell McCaffrey at crucial times, including late in the game when Stanford needed to run some clock, but didn't necessarily need McCaffrey to do all the work to ensure the victory.
"We don't need Christian to get necessarily 40 or anything like that," Shaw said. "But somewhere between 25 and 35 is plenty."
Love, perhaps Stanford's fastest player, came close to breaking a couple of long runs.
"If he gets out of there, he's gone," Shaw said.
Love contributed to McCaffrey's long pass reception on Stanford's second possession. After a play fake to Love, quarterback Ryan Burns threw to a wide-open McCaffrey, who came out of the backfield on a wheel route and outran the defense down the left sideline.
"Just catch and run," said McCaffrey of his thought process. "Burns made a good throw, so it made my job easy."
His second touchdown came on a fourth-down dive to cap a stretch of seven consecutive McCaffrey carries. Among them was a 33-yarder of vintage McCaffrey, a swivel, broken tackle, and cut to the inside on his way to the Trojans' 2.
Burns stayed perfect in his first season as a starter, completing 9 of 15 passes for 109 yards, with a touchdown and interception.
The Stanford defense exhibited a bend-but-don't-break personality through much of the game, allowing the Trojans to convert on several third-and-longs to stay close. But the Cardinal impenetrable down the stretch.
USC's four late offensive series ended thusly: with a three-and-out punt, a fourth-down stop by Joey Alfieri at the Stanford 18, a punt, and Davis' interception.
"We talk about big finishes," Shaw said. "Our biggest compliment is to be a good finisher. Play your best football to end the game. That's the way our team is built."
Of course, Rector created the most spectacular play with his touchdown run.
"You run certain plays to set up other plays, right?" Shaw said. "We ran power, counter, power, power, power counter, power, power, and then upstairs in the box we just watched to see if they're chasing from the back side. We thought they were chasing, and right before we called that play, oh, hey, Michael's coming up now. I said stay wide and run fast. You know, great, brilliant coaching by me.
"Mike's explosive. When he gets to full speed, he's tough to catch. With all the speed we have on this team with Christian and Bryce Love, Michael Rector's the fastest guy on the team, and I think he showed that today."
Last season, Stanford's offense took flight as the season wore on. After two weeks, that appears to be happening again. The next opponent, UCLA at the Rose Bowl next Saturday, will be the next chance to continue that momentum.