The Big Game shootout many expected materialized in the form of Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, who led the Cardinal to a 45-31 victory in the 119th renewal of its football rivalry with Cal on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Stanford (8-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12) earned its seventh consecutive victory in the series and has maintained possession of The Axe since 2009. Sixth-year coach David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, still never has lost to the Golden Bears.
"It's special," Shaw said. "This is a great rivalry, a respectful rivalry. The bottom line is we get to have it for another year."
Much of the credit goes to McCaffrey. In the McCaffrey annals, Saturday's performance may have been his best. At the very least, it was the best rushing performance in Stanford history.
McCaffrey rushed for 284 yards on 31 carries and scored three touchdowns, including a 90-yarder in the third quarter that gave Stanford the momentum it needed to gap the Bears and take control of the game.
The rushing total broke his own school record of 243, against UCLA last year, and was a Big Game record as well. McCaffrey increased his season rushing total to 1,399 with two games left: a regular-season finale against visiting Rice next Saturday and a bowl game to be determined.
“It’s a huge honor for me. Its an honor I share with the O-line, the fullbacks, and the receivers," McCaffrey said. "Keller blocking down field, all those guys. Any type of accolade or anything like that isn’t just me. It takes all the guys out there and I am just really lucky and thankful I have those guys in front of me.”
With Stanford up 17-14 –- the Cardinal had trailed 14-7 in the second quarter -- McCaffrey scored the Cardinal's next three touchdowns, from 90, 11 and 1 yards.
"We knew we wanted to run the ball," said Shaw, whose team gained 357 on the ground and 555 overall. "When the game got to the nitty-gritty we wanted to give it to No. 5."
On Stanford's first series of the second half and pinned back at its own 3-yard line after a Cal punt, the Cardinal used two plays to bolt to a 24-14 lead. McCaffrey slammed up the middle, broke a tackle eight yards upfield, and outran the secondary to complete a coast-to-coast run.
“Its incredible. Every time he runs I want to turn around and watch him the second I hand it off," Chryst said. "I give a lot credit to the guys up front who pave the way for him.”
On the first five possessions of the second half, Stanford scored touchdowns on four of them, concluding with a nifty 30-yard pass from Keller Chryst to Trenton Irwin to take a 45-24 lead with 4:17 left in the game.
Chryst improved to 4-0 as a starter and may have had his best game yet. At this point, no one is criticizing the quarterback play and the Stanford offense has been rolling since the Cardinal began that four-game winning streak at Arizona, after previously dropping three of four to drop out of the Pac-12 North Division race.
Chryst completed 13 of 23 passes for 198 yards and threw two touchdown passes. He also ran 16 yards for Stanford's first touchdown and was the lead blocker on pitch to McCaffrey that picked up 36 yards. Of Chryst's passing yards, 104 of them went to JJ Arcega-Whiteside on four catches, including a 59-yarder that set up Stanford's final touchdown.
Cal receiver Chad Hansen bookended his night with touchdowns. He scored from 70 yards on Cal's first play from scrimmage on a short slant that gobbled up the defense. He also caught a 16-yarder from Davis Webb to cut the deficit to 45-31 with 3:01 left in the game.
Cal attempted an onsides kick, but it was covered by Stanford's Justin Reid and the Cardinal ran out the clock from there. Receiver Michael Rector and guard Johnny Caspers took the Axe from it's the Stanford Axe Committee, still locked in a staredown with their Cal counterparts, and held it up for all to see.
In the Stanford team room, there are photos on the wall of Stanford players holding the Axe after every Big Game victory. Another will be placed there shortly.