They lined up last week against Royce Freeman, the nation’s second-leading rusher, a tailback so talented that Huskies defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake called him the best in the country.
But it won’t be until Saturday night at Stanford that Washington will face a running back who many believe could be a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Christian McCaffrey’s somewhat surprising ascension into the Heisman conversation is proof enough of just how far the Stanford Cardinal have come since scoring just six points in a season-opening loss to Northwestern. The Cardinal has scored at least 31 points in each game since, and averaged 48.5 points per game while compiling a 4-0 Pac-12 record en route to a No. 10 national ranking.
Those victories, of course, have something to do with McCaffrey’s growing Heisman profile. But it’s also true that McCaffrey, a 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore and the son of Denver Broncos All-Pro receiver Ed McCaffrey, is at the center of this offensive renaissance. He’s rushed for 844 yards on 130 carries in six games, scoring five touchdowns and averaging 6.5 yards per rush. And he has 16 receptions this season for 176 yards and a touchdown.
He returns punts and kickoffs, too, and ranks second in the Pac-12 with an average of 30 yards per kick return. Against UCLA last Thursday, he returned a kick 96 yards, broke Stanford’s single-game rushing record with 243 yards, and finished with 369 all-purpose yards — 10 yards short of another Stanford record.
So while Oregon’s Freeman might project more favorably to the NFL, McCaffrey could well be the most valuable nonquarterback in the league. His 1,518 all-purpose yards — an average of 253.0 per game — lead the nation.
“He’s a hell of a player,” said UW nose tackle Elijah Qualls, whose 6-foot-1, 311-pound frame will be tasked with clogging up Stanford’s formidable offensive line. “Kick return, receiver, tailback. Golly. Dude can do it all. That’s another dude we’re going to have to wrap up, man. We’re going to have to gang-tackle him.”
UW defensive line coach Jeff Choate provided more superlatives, calling McCaffrey “one of the best open-field runners I’ve seen in a long time.”
“He’s got tremendous vision. He’s a little bit of a slasher. He can jump-cut, he can speed-cut, he’s patient, patient, and when he sees a crease, he can really accelerate. I think he’s a special player.”
When McCaffrey has the ball, Choate said, “you’re in your gap, you’re in your gap, you’re in your gap, you start peeking at the last second and he’ll jump-cut and make you wrong. So it’s just a high degree of discipline in terms of anchoring your gap and creating knock-off and separation, so when he does commit, you’re in a position that you can make a play.”
McCaffrey is aided in no small part by a Stanford offensive line that features four seniors — Puyallup native and starting left guard Joshua Garnett among them — and has a combined total of 88 collegiate starts.
“We’ve got to show up with our ‘A’ game,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said, “and we’ve got to do a good job getting off blocks and tackling.”
Stanford’s five starters are each listed at 6 foot 4 or taller — left tackle Kyle Murphy is 6-7, right tackle Casey Tucker is 6-6 — and only the center, Graham Shuler, weighs less than 300 pounds. And he’s listed at 285.
“But he’s athletic as hell,” Qualls said of Shuler, “and he’ll reach you if you let him.”
It should be an interesting challenge for the Huskies, who rank 16th nationally in yards-per-rush allowed (3.1) and seemed to feel OK about limiting (a relative term) Freeman to 138 yards on 27 carries last week.
“They have NFL-type guys year in and year out, so being able to go against honestly, probably the best O-line in our conference is something I absolutely look forward to,” Qualls said about the Cardinal. “It’s downhill, hard-nosed football. You know it’s coming every play and it’s just, do you want to be better than that person across from you?”
Few have been better than McCaffrey.
SATURDAY: UW (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) at Stanford (5-1, 4-0), 7:30 p.m., ESPN, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, a sophomore, leads the Pac-12 in rushing thanks to four consecutive games of more than 100 yards. A closer look at McCaffrey’s season: