STANFORD, Calif. – Closing the season with six consecutive victories, there is much to appreciate and plenty of optimism for the Stanford football program.
Friday’s nail-biting 25-23 win against North Carolina in the Hyundai Sun Bowl capped a 10-3 season, marking the sixth time in seven years the team has recoded 10 or more triumphs. Given where the Cardinal stood on Oct. 22, after losing three of its last four games, that is no small accomplishment.
“It was an outstanding game,” said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. “Thankfully, our guys made enough plays at the end to seal it.”
Stanford prevailed despite the absence of All-America running back Christian McCaffrey and the loss of starting quarterback Keller Chryst, who went down with a knee injury. He was replaced by senior Ryan Burns, who started the first seven games and led the Cardinal to victories against USC, UCLA and Notre Dame.
“He didn’t play perfectly, but he made just enough plays for us to win,” Shaw said of Burns.
So did the defense, which held an opponent below its season scoring average for the 12th time in 13 games.
Sparked by junior defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and fifth-year senior safety Dallas Lloyd, Stanford did just enough to outlast the Tar Heels. Thomas saved the day by sacking elusive 6-foot-3, 209-pound North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky on a two-point conversion attempt with 25 seconds remaining, hauling him down by the jersey with his right hand.
“Solomon exemplified this football team with his toughness, heart and effort,” said Shaw. “Great players make great plays.”
Using his speed and quickness to cover the field, Thomas finished the season with a team-high 62 tackles, collecting 15 for loss, eight sacks and seven quarterback hits. He also recovered two fumbles, returning one for a touchdown, and recorded a safety.
Thomas has not announced his intention to return to school or enter 2017 NFL Draft.
“I’m in no rush,” he said. “I just want to enjoy this victory with teammates.”
Lloyd wound up second in tackles with 61 and intercepted a squad-best five passes — the most since Ed Reynolds in 2012, including two in the Sun Bowl.
Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips produced a standout season with 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. So did outside linebacker Joey Alfieri, whose 10.5 tackles for loss were second to Thomas. He also added five sacks.
Safety Justin Reid and cornerback Alameen Murphy each broke up seven passes.
Chryst went 6-0, posted a 10-2 touchdown to interception ratio, and completed 57 percent of his passes.
Replacing McCaffrey is a tall task, but sophomore Bryce Love showed he is ready to become the featured runner by eclipsing 100 yards in both of his starts this season. He led the Cardinal with a 7.1 yards per carry average, and caught a 49-yard touchdown pass from Chryst against North Carolina.
Also back are Cameron Scarlett and fullbacks Daniel Marx and Reagan Williams. Shaw is also excited about true freshmen Trevor Speights and Dorian Maddox.
“I think both guys are going to be really good by the time their Stanford careers are done,” he said.
Shaw praised McCaffrey after the game and supported his decision to skip the contest to prepare for the NFL Draft.
“When we weren’t playing well, he was playing great,” said Shaw. “At the end of the year, he played so well. He played so hard until the rest of us on offense started picking it up around him. So this six-game run that we finished the season on was in large part due to him.”
Fifth-year senior Conrad Ukropina closed out his Stanford career as the most accurate kicker in program history. He scored a team-high 100 points by converting 22 of 27 field goal attempts and all 34 extra points.
Ukropina drilled 42 of 51 field goals for the Cardinal for a percentage of 82.4. The previous single season record for field goals was 20 set by John Hopkins in 1988.
Ukropina made a school-record 108 consecutive extra points, and was named the special teams MVP at the Sun Bowl for booting four field goals, matching the mark for most in a game.
Sophomore Jake Bailey had a quietly spectacular season, capped by a strong performance in El Paso. He averaged 49.6 yards per punt and came up big in the fourth quarter, pinning North Carolina at its own 13 and three with boots of 52 and 56, respectively. Only one of his seven kickoffs was returned for 19 yards.
On the season, Bailey averaged 43.5 yards per punt, and 22 were downed inside the 20-yard line. Of his 71 kickoffs, 44 went for touchbacks.
The Pac-12 is 2-3 in postseason play pending the outcome of Monday’s Rose Bowl Game between USC and Penn State.
Stanford’s three losses came against Washington (12-2), Washington State (8-5) and Colorado (10-4), who were a combined 30-11.
It’s worth noting that after losing to Stanford, 26-13, in the season opener for both teams, Kansas State finished 9-4, capped by a 29-11 victory against Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl.
Extra Points … Shaw’s four bowl wins are the most in school history … Stanford has now won 76 games in the 2010 decade. The previous high was 70 in the 1970s … If Thomas returns, the Cardinal could have 10 starters back on defense and eight on offense … Sophomore wide receiver Trenton Irwin finished with a team-high 37 receptions and has at least one catch in 14 straight games … For the season, Stanford outrushed opponents 3,058 to 2,236 … Former Cardinal All-America golfer and PGA Tour winner Notah Begay III, now a course reporter and analyst for NBC Sports and the Golf Channel, served as honorary captain at the Sun Bowl.
Quotable … “When the game was on the line and we had to make a play, we did.” – David Shaw