While in years past, hitting a few games on a weekend meant a quick hop into the Jetta and a few hour jaunt down some winding county roads, this year things are different. While living the expat life in Paris certainly has its advantages, keeping my usual pace on the college football chase is a challenge. As such, any precious time back in the USA during the fall involves meticulous planning in order to maximize my gridiron intake. With a week long trip scheduled for mid October, I had planned to squeeze five games in the course of seven days, beginning with a triple header weekend on the west coast. This opening frenzy would take me to Stanford on a Thursday night, Fresno State on Friday night, and close out at San Jose State on Saturday evening.
Fortunately, my sister had recently moved to Palo Alto, which meant a roof over my head and easy staging for the weekday Stanford contest. While I had already visited Stanford Stadium before, the smashmouth Cardinals of 2015 vintage sported a lofty #15 ranking, and were hosting the #18 UCLA Bruins in what promised to be one of the bigger Pac 12 match ups of the season. Sister reluctantly in tow, we trotted off on foot, making easy work of the short walk to Stanford Stadium located only steps from her front door.
We stop for a quick bite at Kirks Steakburgers, a landmark burger joint that’s been slinging them out to scholars at “The Farm” since 1948. Located in an upscale shopping court across the street from the stadium, the original location is long gone, but the place is still hopping a few hours before kickoff. After a ten minute wait in line, I order one of their signature bacon cheese steakburgers and a pile of steak fries. Cooked over charcoal, the burgers have a hallmark grilled flavor that sets them apart from their fried counterparts and gives Kirk’s its namesake. The burger itself, however, is mediocre on a busy game day. Overcooked and dry, it’s a hockey puck between two buns, further insulted by lifeless and soggy steak fries. After 67 years in business, I’m sure Kirk’s reputation is well deserved, but today wasn’t one of them.
From there, we amble across the street and into the Stanford Arboretum as tailgaters revel in the last few rays of a pristine afternoon. The arboretum is, quite simply, a breathtaking tailgating venue. Shaded by dozens of massive Eucalyptus trees, some of them over six feet in diameter, the natural beauty of the space is rivaled only by The Grove at Ole Miss. Generously spaced maroon and white tents line the natural promenades formed by the great trees, while the effervescent, minty twinge of eucalyptus fuses with grill smoke into an intoxicating alchemy wafting through the air. It’s a distinctive aroma, tailgating perfume, and completely unique among the college football landscape. Stanford should bottle and brand this scent…
As dusk settles, I track down a pair of tickets for twenty bucks a pop, the market surprisingly soft even with a marquee Pac 12 opponent in town. Despite a half decade of sustained success extending back to the Jim Harbaugh era, evidently the Cardinal faithful are still getting used to big time football in Palo Alto. Settling into our seats as the final minutes of pre-game warmups are completed, I school my sister on the finer points of the disheveled mob of ragamuffin misfits comprising the Stanford University Marching Band. A motley assortment that remains, unrivaled, as the worst band in all of college football.
Although billed as a competitive game on paper, once the football is kicked, however, the contest turns ugly in a hurry. The Cardinal decimate the hapless Bruins, stuffing them into a locker like a schoolyard bully with their signature brand of punishing, physical football. Watching the juggernaut Stanford offensive line blast the Bruins five yards into the backfield on every snap is a thing of beauty for purists of the traditional power game.
The standout for the trees on the day is running back/kickoff returner/athlete extraordinaire Christian McCaffrey, son of Pro-Bowl NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey. The blisteringly quick McCaffrey racks up 243 yards (a Stanford rushing record) against four touchdowns on the ground, while darting for another 122 yards of kickoff returns. Stating a strong case for his Heisman candidacy, McCaffrey was completely unstoppable on this night.
While McCaffrey stuffs the stats box, its wide receiver Francis Owusu that steals the highlight show. He has only one catch on the night, but it’s a circus grab. At the opening of the third quarter, on a reverse -backtoss gadget play, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan unloads a 41 yard rainbow into the endzone. As the ball spirals down towards Owusu, he leaps into the air with the cornerback blocking him and proceeds to catch the ball with his arms bear hugged around the back of the defender, while still clutching the football to complete the catch as the duo tumbles into the turf. The incredulous grab draws barely an audible cheer from the crowd, as nobody in the stands realized exactly what had happened until they saw it replayed from several angles on the jumbotron. Without a doubt one of the most magnificent grabs I’ll ever witness…
In the end, it was an impressive, dominating win for the Stanford squad and further cemented their position as the team to beat in the Pac 12 conference once again this year. Their tough, physical brand of football is truly a delight to watch in the age of ADHD inspired, basketball on grass, spread option offenses. With a looming date on the calendar in late November with Notre Dame, the result of that contest could likely determine one of the final four playoff spots. Let’s hope that McCaffrey sleeps through his alarm on that day….
Special thanks to my sister for hosting me for the weekend, and (reluctantly) agreeing to come along for another year on the PigskinPursuit!
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