PASADENA, Calif. — It took just one touch for Christian McCaffrey to show Iowa just how special a player he is.
It didn’t take many more for him to show the rest of country just how wrong the Heisman Trophy voting was.
McCaffrey racked up a Rose Bowl-record 368 all-purpose yards amid the glittering backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains on New Year’s Day, shattering the hope of legions of Hawkeyes fans before the game was even in the second quarter. The 45-16 final score failed to convey just how dominant Stanford was against a team one drive away from the College Football Playoff or how special the Cardinal’s star tailback was on every snap.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that,” McCaffrey responded, when asked if this was his best game of the season. “I play for my teammates. I play for God and my family. At the end of the day, whether I win anything or don’t, that’s the reason why I play, and that keeps me motivated.”
McCaffrey’s first touch showed just what kind of game it would be, as he snuck out of the backfield and grabbed a pass over the middle—one-on-one with a safety. By the time the ball was in his hands, it was already too late for the poor Iowa defensive back, who was thoroughly beaten by the running back’s hesitation move. The DB couldn’t help but turn and watch McCaffrey race 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Sportz Now provided highlights:
That catch alone played a big part in allowing the running back to easily capture another double-double, topping the century mark in both rushing and receiving against an Iowa defense that came in ranked in the top 15 in a number of categories.
“I think he was the best player in America before this game, so I think it’s just icing on the cake for us,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “Apparently the games were too late, but the bottom line for me is his heart and determination is evident in every single practice and every single game.”
Friday’s contest, likely the most watched New Year’s Six bowl when final numbers are released, was no coming-out party for the well-built running back from The Farm. McCaffrey had been coast-to-coast in the month leading up to the bowl after finishing second in the Heisman voting last month, just 293 points behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry.
Although he didn’t get the campaign push that other candidates had for the award, many west of the Mississippi (and in the national media) who gave their vote to the Stanford star no doubt felt a little validated as the sun set in Southern California after McCaffrey downright embarrassed the Hawkeyes at The Granddaddy of Them All.
“Once that announcement happened and Derrick won that Heisman, I knew what was going to happen in the Rose Bowl,” Outland Trophy-winning offensive lineman Joshua Garnett said. “That is the wrong guy to light a fire underneath. Christian McCaffrey is the best player I’ve been around in my life."
Though he didn’t win the Heisman, despite breaking Barry Sanders’ lofty FBS record for all-purpose yardage in a season, there’s little doubting that McCaffrey saved his best for last. In the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl, the sophomore racked up 829 all-purpose yards (379 rushing, 210 receiving, and 240 returning) to go along with five total touchdowns.
Alabama’s Henry was a worthy winner of the Heisman no matter how you slice the numbers or break down the film, capping an outstanding 2015 by powering the Tide over Michigan State and into the national title game. Still, he fell far short of McCaffrey’s versatility on the field and has just 42 more yards on the ground through 14 games despite 22 more carries.
His Stanford counterpart, meanwhile, found the end zone through the air, on the ground, with his arm and via return in his final two games. No matter where he lined up, Friday or otherwise, McCaffrey seemed to be a threat to score at any moment and certainly proved that at the Rose Bowl against the Big Ten runner-up.
“He is a great football player—he earned that trip to New York,” veteran Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz remarked. “We don’t have anybody like that, and I mean that with all due respect to our players. We have a lot of good players, but he’s a rare talent. Tremendous football player, great balance, great vision and very difficult to tackle.”
McCaffrey’s 368-yard all-purpose effort was the fourth-best performance ever in a bowl game and most ever by a Power Five player. Amazingly, only two other teams the past decade even had a 100-plus-yard rusher and receiver in the same Rose Bowl, much less it be one player.
Not bad for a player with two seasons of eligibility left who is just scratching the surface of what he can do.
“He can really affect the game in so many different ways; that’s how [Vince Young] was,” said Stanford assistant Duane Akina, who was on the Longhorns’ national title-winning staff a decade ago at the same venue. “And like V.Y., Christian just raises the level of play of everybody around him. He’s just so confident.”
“I’ve had to cover him in practice, and it’s not easy; he’s gotten me more times than not,” defensive back Quenton Meeks added. “He’s a great athlete, but the thing that people don’t know about is his work ethic. He inspires me. He’s never satisfied. He should have won the Heisman, but even with all that, he still kept his work ethic.”
Meeks should know as he’s tried to follow the lead of the team’s Heisman hopeful but on the defensive side of the ball. The freshman was pressed into early duty this season but helped cement the Cardinal win against Iowa by adding a touchdown of his own when he jumped a C.J. Beathard pass in the first quarter and returned it 66 yards for a pick-six.
“They lined up in empty formation, and I knew exactly what play they were going to run,” Meeks said. “I was on the No. 2 receiver, so I knew exactly what he was going to run. I was really surprised [Beathard] threw it because I was right on his hip. I just caught it out of reflex since the sun was in my eye. My next thought was I can’t get caught from behind.”
He didn’t and neither did Stanford the rest of the day. While yellow-and-black colors dominated the crowd of 94,268 on hand, it was the Cardinal-clad fans who did most of the celebrating, enjoying a rare game that wasn’t close involving a Stanford team.
For that, they can thank their shifty-yet-powerful do-it-all star who wears No. 5.
“McCaffrey, he’s a great running back. Everybody saw that today, and everybody’s seen it all season long,” Hawkeyes defensive back Jordan Lomax said. “His ability to elude tackles and stay on his feet…he’s just a great player.”
Of that there is no question.
The voting is over and done with but, after the 102nd Rose Bowl, it seems abundantly clear that McCaffrey did more than enough to walk away from the 2015 season with the Heisman Trophy.
Now there’s just one more question left for him to ask as the calendar turns to 2016: What’s next for the country's best player?
Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.