STANFORD — The loss of record-breaking running back Christian McCaffrey to the NFL turned out to not harm Stanford as much as expected thanks to a breakthrough season for Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love.
Love’s decision on whether he’ll leave for the NFL after setting Stanford’s single-season rushing record or return for a fourth season will play a major role in determining the expectations for the Cardinal next year.
No. 15 Stanford (9-5) got a taste of life without Love when he nursed injuries in the second half of the season. There is no heir apparent on the roster as there was when McCaffrey left early for the draft a year ago.
Love, a biology major and aspiring pediatrician with an interest in stem cell research, has not made a decision yet on whether he will skip his senior season or stay for another year.
Love set a Stanford record with 2,118 yards rushing, set an FBS record with 13 runs of at least 50 yards, and topped the 100-yard mark 12 times this season despite being hampered by a sprained ankle the second half of the season and a hand injury in a 37-35 Alamo Bowl loss to No. 13 TCU on Thursday night.
The Cardinal have several other players with eligibility remaining who could leave early for the NFL, including safety Justin Reid, tight end Dalton Schultz and injured cornerback Alijah Holder.
“A lot of guys have some decisions to make whether to leave or not, but when I look at what’s coming back, and there’s so much work to do, but I’m so excited, so excited for what we have coming back on this football team, and there’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of things that we can improve and so many areas that we are going to get so much better,” coach David Shaw said following the bowl loss.
“So many guys played tonight. I have a firm belief that when we start next year, you may not recognize them. I think we’re going to make a huge jump, and I think we need to.”
The team will also lose star defensive lineman Harrison Phillips and key offensive lineman David Bright among others but there are some key pieces in place that provide optimism for the future.
One of the most important pieces is quarterback K.J. Costello, who progressed after taking over for good from Keller Chryst in November.
Stanford has gotten somewhat spotty play at quarterback the past two seasons, with Shaw shuffling between Ryan Burns, Chryst and then Costello. But Costello showed signs of being able to solidify the position with his play down the stretch.
He played a strong game in a win against Washington that proved key in helping the Cardinal win the Pac-12 North. He then had four TD passes in the regular-season finale against Notre Dame.
He threw two more touchdowns in a Pac-12 title game loss to Southern California before adding three more in the bowl game. But he was unable to lead a late comeback with Love on the sideline, and his second interception of the game sealed TCU’s bowl win.
“It was a couple mistakes that we were making at the end of the day, and that’s a really good feeling knowing that heading into the offseason there’s a lot of things we did well,” he said. “There’s a lot of areas that I’m looking forward to working on in the offseason.”
In San Antonio on Thursday, the Horned Frogs rallied from 21-3 down to beat the Cardinal as Kenny Hill passed for two touchdowns, ran for another, and even caught one. Cole Bunce kicked the winning 33-yard field goal with just over 3 minutes left after Stanford had retaken the lead.
“The bottom line is we need to start faster,” TCU coach Gary Patterson joked after the game. “We fought back tonight.”
Hill landed the biggest punches. He scored the Horned Frogs’ first touchdown on a 6-yard scramble. His 27-yard TD catch on a throw from receiver Desmon White capped No. 13 TCU’s first drive of the second half.
And Hill’s 93-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Reagor in the fourth quarter sent a charge through an Alamodome crowd that was dominated by TCU fans.
It was the second time this season Hill had a rushing, passing and receiving touchdown, providing a memorable finale to his college career. Hill began his career at Texas A&M, where he succeeded Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in 2014, but transferred to TCU (11-3) after a rocky first season with the Aggies.
“To come back to win (tonight) with this group of guys who accepted me from the minute I came in, means everything to me,” said Hill, who had 314 yards passing and a team-high 60 yard rushing.
Love rushed for 145 yards for Stanford (9-5), including a 69-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Costello threw three touchdown passes to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, the last one giving Stanford a 37-36 lead.
Hill completed three passes on TCU’s winning drive. The Horned Frogs sealed the victory with an interception by Innis Gaines with 2:01 left.
The Horned Frogs defended Love about as well as anyone this season despite the long touchdown run. Most important, they didn’t let him take over in the second half, which let Hill and the offense rally. When the Stanford running game wasn’t working, the TCU defense could get after Costello, who struggled under pressure after his quick start.
The Cardinal were doomed by the big play just when they had a chance to put the game away. After pinning TCU deep, Hill found Reagor for the long TD pass early in the fourth quarter. White, who earlier had a costly fumble, then gave TCU its first lead with a punt return touchdown.
“He outkicked his coverage. I saw green and took off running,” White said.
“We really want a lot of those plays back. Those long drives and a couple big plays, they caught back up really quick,” Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said.