Behind Christian McCaffrey‘s four touchdowns, Stanford proved once again Thursday night that its turgid season-opening loss at Northwestern was a fluke.
The No. 15 Cardinal smoked No. 18 UCLA, 56-35, in Palo Alto, and are firmly in control of the Pac-12 North with a 4-0 conference record. Since that 16-6 loss in Evanston, Stanford scored 31 points against UCF, 41 against USC, 42 against Oregon State, 55 against Arizona and now 56 against UCLA.
The 56 points were the most allowed by UCLA since Oct. 21, 2010 at Oregon.
Stanford’s offensive line was dominant against UCLA’s front seven, allowing McCaffrey to average 9.7 yards per carry. Over his last four games — all of which have been in Pac-12 play — the sophomore has 720 yards on 98 carries, an average of 7.35 yards per carry. Not only has he quickly established himself as the next Stanford feature running back, he’s rocketed into the discussion of being among the best backs not named Leonard Fournette.
The Cardinal were never really challenged by UCLA, with Bruins freshman quarterback Josh Rosen throwing an early pick-six and McCaffrey propelling Stanford to a 35-17 halftime lead.
Coming out of halftime, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan found receiver Francis Owusu for an outstanding Tyrone Prothro impression and a 41-yard touchdown. It legitimately might’ve been the best catch we’ve seen at the college level since that famous Prothro one.
But back to McCaffrey. He ripped off a 96-yard kick return in the first quarter to set up Stanford’s first offensive score, and had a 70-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. With 349 all-purpose yards, McCaffrey vaulted himself atop that FBS leaderboard with an average of 253 all-purpose yards per game.
Stanford’s next four games are at home against Washington, on the road at Washington State and Colorado and a return to Palo Alto to face Oregon. If the Cardinal avoid an upset over that stretch — which seems likely, given the dominance of its offensive line — it can clinch a Pac-12 championship game berth with a win over Cal Nov. 21, and then put itself in a position to make the College Football Playoff with a win over Notre Dame Nov. 28.
The way the Pac-12 and college football landscape are setting up, it’d be difficult to keep a one-loss Stanford out of the College Football Playoff. And if Utah maintains its top-five play — and beats Arizona State on Saturday, giving every other Pac-12 South team at least two losses — the Pac-12 Championship could be a play-in game for the playoff.