What's wrong with star Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey?

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

What’s wrong with Christian McCaffrey?

That question can be answered two equally correct ways. Most literally, Stanford’s dazzling 6-foot, 200-pound do-everything running back left his team’s loss to Washington State last weekend with an unspecified injury. His head coach, David Shaw, offered only that the former Heisman finalist was “banged up,” which is monumentally unhelpful in its uncompromising vagueness.

In his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Shaw doubled down.

“Like I said after the game, it didn’t make sense to put McCaffrey back in the game. He wanted to (go back in). It was unnecessary,” Shaw said. “He just got banged up during the course of the game. We’ll be cautious with him, as we are with all of our guys that are pretty beaten up. So we’ll see where he is.

“We probably won’t have an answer until Friday or maybe game time, unless we rule him out before then, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. He was already feeling a little bit better yesterday. But it will be a late-week decision.”

For Notre Dame, there is no decision. The 2-4 Irish will prepare as if McCaffrey is playing, cutting, juking, strutting just as he always has. Notre Dame, which ranks 84th nationally against the run, can’t afford to assume that Stanford’s most explosive weapon will remain stashed on a dusty shelf.

However, if the Irish can draw any confidence heading into Saturday’s game, it should come from the fact that they held McCaffrey to 94 rushing yards, 3.5 yards per carry and zero touchdowns a season ago. That uncharacteristic performance was sandwiched around 192 McCaffrey rushing yards against California and 207 rushing yards against USC.

In all, McCaffrey rushed for at least 100 yards in nine consecutive games last season. The Irish snapped the streak.

“It's not that, you know, we had a hex on him and he fell down,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We controlled the line of scrimmage. You have to control the line of scrimmage to have a chance to tackle him. Now, he got in space and they threw the ball to him, and we had some poor matchups.

“We will have to control the line of scrimmage again, and if you can control the line of scrimmage or win the matchups up front, you can definitely slow him down.”

Now, let’s approach the same question a different way: What’s wrong with Christian McCaffrey?

In 2015, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey rushed for 2,019 yards, six yards per carry and eight touchdowns, while adding 645 receiving yards and five more scores, plus 1,200 return yards and two more touchdowns.

Through his team’s first three games this season, all wins, McCaffrey boasted 145.3 rushing yards per game, 5.5 yards per carry and three touchdowns.

Then, for whatever reason, the unstoppable force hit a sudden snag.

In Stanford’s last two games, both blowout losses, McCaffrey has averaged just 42 rushing yards and 4.2 yards per carry without once reaching the end zone. In their 3-2 start, the Cardinal rank 100th out of 128 teams nationally in rushing, with 140.8 yards per game.

Opponents have dared someone other than McCaffrey to beat them.

And lately, no one has.

“You go back to what Washington did to them (in its 44-6 victory on Sept. 30),” said former Notre Dame quarterback and current Fox Sports color commentator and analyst Brady Quinn. “Washington essentially was not threatened at all on the outside. Their cornerbacks did a tremendous job of being patient, playing their leverage, waiting outside and turning McCaffrey back in to where they had help and they rallied to the football.”

Midway through the 2016 season, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is wrong with Christian McCaffrey. Maybe it’s nothing, a two-week outlier tacked on the end of a magical run.

Maybe McCaffrey’s only flaw is that there aren’t more of him to go around.

“I’m not pinning this on the offensive line,” Shaw said. “We have been inconsistent from 1 through 11 with guys on the field. Receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks as well. It’s not just the offensive line. It looks like the offensive line, just because we didn’t run the ball very well and we’ve given up sacks in the last two weeks. It’s not just on those guys.

“They’ve got a hand in it, but we’ve all got a hand in it.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey stands on the field during warmups before an NCAA college football game against Washington, Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)