The biggest mystery of Stanford's 41-17 nonconference football victory over Rice on Saturday night was guessing what kind of crazy numbers Christian McCaffrey would accumulate in the regular-season finale at Stanford Stadium.
McCaffrey rushed for 204 yards on 30 carries, gained 271 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns, giving him a career-high 16 this season. He left the game for good with 12 minutes left and left no clue afterward on his future plans.
"I haven't made a decision," McCaffrey said of entering the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining. "As of now, I'll get back Monday, get to back to practice and get back to working on my craft."
Bryce Love contributed 111 yards on seven carries to Stanford's 534-yard offensive total. Its early-season offensive woes long forgotten, Stanford closed out the regular season with three consecutive games of 500 total yards, totaling 1,629.
With its fifth consecutive victory, Stanford (9-3) remained in line to achieve its sixth 10-victory season in seven years – an achievement that seemed far-fetched when the Cardinal lost three of four to fall to 4-3 earlier this season.
"Even if the season wasn't going on the right way, we practiced hard, practiced well, and practiced with energy and passion," said Stanford coach David Shaw. "That's what I'm most proud of. We have a team that's continued to grow, work hard, and push each other. I couldn't be more proud of our mentality as a football team."
Stanford has won every regular-season finale since 2008 and is 6-0 in such contests under Shaw. The Cardinal advances to a bowl for a school-record eighth consecutive season and will learn its assignment, most likely the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30 in El Paso, but with the Foster Farms, Holiday, and Las Vegas bowls in the running as well.
As complete as Stanford has played in recent weeks, on both sides of the ball, the most spectacular player continued to be McCaffrey.
His 2,327 all-purpose yards leads the FBS and is the second-highest total in Stanford history, behind his own 3,864, from last year. He is averaging 211.5 per game. McCaffrey's 1,603 rushing yards are the fourth-most in school history. In the past five games, McCaffrey has rushed for 991 yards and rushed for 10 touchdowns.
This is McCaffrey's fifth consecutive game with 100 yards rushing, making him the only player in Stanford history to have two such streaks. McCaffrey has two consecutive 200-yard rushing performances, and five in his career.
With 6,987 all-purpose yards, he needs only 134 more to break Darrin Nelson's Stanford career record. With 3,922 career rushing yards, McCaffrey is No. 3 at Stanford all-time and still has a season of eligibility remaining.
McCaffrey bolted to a run of 26 yards in the first quarter and 42 in the second. He took a punt 33 yards and turned a short slant pass 23 yards for a touchdown. And then broke three tackles on a 19-yard run for another score, this one in the third quarter.
"He's just a special, special football player," Shaw said. "We weren't going to hand him the ball the whole game, but we were going to give him a chance to influence the game plan, and he did. Every time he touches the ball, it's just a collective gasp in the stadium just to see what he's going to do next."
Said Rice coach David Bailiff, "I've been here for 33 years and I have not seen anyone who is capable of doing what he can do with a football in his hand."
McCaffrey was the most riveting figure in a game that was even more one-sided than the score indicated. The junior can jump to the NFL and the possibility that this could be the final home game of the most dynamic player in school history was ever present.
On whether he expects McCaffrey to return, "Hope springs eternal," Shaw said. "I'll touch base with him and his family in the next couple of weeks. There's no rushing it. There's no bad decision. His game translates to the next level."
The big plays were not restricted to McCaffrey. Quarterback Keller Chryst ran 62 yards for one score, Love ran 50 on a reverse for another, Chyst connected with graduating senior Francis Owusu on a 45-yard scoring pass.
For the first half, at least, that signature moment went to Chryst. Looking right on a third-down pass play, Chryst tucked the ball and headed left to the first-down marker. On the way to the sideline, he saw that receiver Michael Rector had sealed off the Rice defense. Chryst tiptoed down the sideline, cut inside at the 5 behind a block from JJ Arcega-Whiteside and scored on a 62-yard run. It was the longest touchdown run by a Stanford quarterback in at least 20 years.
"It was awesome," McCaffrey said. "That's just the grit he has."
One more impressive note: Conrad Ukropina connected on two field goals, of 28 and 23 yards, and converted five extra-point tries, giving him 106 consecutive conversions.
Defensive end Solomon Thomas was his typical disruptive self, pressuring the Rice quarterback and pursuing running backs sideline to sideline. Thomas, a junior with NFL aspirations, is another player with choices to make about his future.
Finally, freshman linebacker Curtis Robinson had two sacks, including one for a 21-yard loss on Rice's final play from scrimmage.
The rain came down throughout much of the second half and the mist settled into the stadium as the game concluded, but for the Cardinal, it was another in a series of beautiful nights. And it was even more special because of the finality for the for seniors.
The 9-3 record, it couldn't be viewed as disappointing for the Pac-12 favorite because of a season is never simple.
"I'm a realist," Shaw said. "We get what we earn. Wasting time worrying about what could have should have, it's a waste of time. It's about living life in the windshield. You look and see where you are. Wherever you are, that's where you deserve to be."
In the locker room afterward, Shaw praised his team and the program for doing things the right way and growing tighter as a team, even under adversity.
"We have a lot to be proud of," he said.