At the Pac-12 media day event this summer in Los Angeles, David Shaw was asked if there was another Christian McCaffrey out there.
“If there was another Christian McCaffrey, I’ll take him,” the Stanford coach said.
It turned out that Shaw had someone even more productive at carrying the football already on the roster — Bryce Love.
Six games into the season, Love leads the FBS in rushing with 1,240 yards. The junior is averaging video game numbers for yards per carry (10.5) and yards per game (206.7).
Now Oregon’s improved defense will try to derail Love’s Heisman Trophy campaign when it faces No. 23 Stanford on Saturday at Stanford Stadium (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
“Bryce Love,” coach Willie Taggart said while searching his memory for a running back comparison. “Man, I would love to hate the guy, but he’s so good. He’s different.”
The 5-foot-10, 196-pound Love has an amazing combination of speed (eight rushes of 50 or more yards this season) and power (credited with breaking 25 tackles against Arizona State).
Halfway through the 2017 regular season, Love has more rushing yards than 104 FBS teams and 247 more rushing yards than the nation’s second leading rusher, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny (993 yards).
“You look at him and he’s so small of a back, but he’s so strong and gifted,” Taggart continued. “We have to gang tackle, it’s not going to be one guy bringing that guy down. It’s got to be a gang tackle.
“Our safeties have to be patient, they can’t peek their head in one hole and think they have him because he’ll bounce out the other side of them. He’s a phenomenal football player.”
Utah’s stout defensive front limited Love to an average of 4.4 yards on 19 of his 20 carries, but his 68-yard touchdown proved to be the difference in Stanford’s 23-20 victory last week in Salt Lake City.
“Stack the box,” cornerback Arrion Springs said of what it takes to bottle Love up. “Everybody just has to be ready to stop the run, everybody has to contribute. It’s not just the front seven, the corners have to get involved as well.”
Taggart was Jim Harbaugh’s running backs coach at Stanford when Toby Gerhart finished second in the Heisman voting. McCaffrey was also the runner-up for the award after finishing with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015 to break the record held by Barry Sanders.
In recent Heisman straw polls, Love is running second behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but rapidly gaining ground.
The Cardinal (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12) might be able to keep Love in the race down to the wire if Stanford can overtake No. 5 Washington (6-0, 3-0) and No. 8 Washington State (6-0, 3-0) in the North Division of the Pac-12.
“Stanford produces great running backs time and time again,” said linebacker Troy Dye, who leads Oregon with 52 tackles. “We just have to go out there and do our best and play our game and try to stop him and contain him. He is a really good running back.
“I mean, he’s up for the Heisman and he’s breaking all types of rushing records. We have to go out there and respect a guy who is bringing a great game.”
The Ducks (4-2, 1-2) have a much-improved defense, which leads the FBS in sacks (24), ranks sixth in tackles for loss (40) and 29th in total yards allowed (338.3 ypg).
Jim Leavitt’s unit has faced potential NFL first-round quarterbacks (Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Washington State’s Luke Falk) and a talented dual-threat quarterback (Arizona State’s Manny Wilkins), but Love presents a much different challenge.
“Tremendous athlete,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said. “Everything you hear about the kid is the epitome of why you play college ball and why you recruit some of those student-athletes.”
When asked if he had seen any running backs like Love, Salave’a said: “Yeah, they play on Sundays.”
McCaffrey — who rushed for 135 yards and three touchdowns during a 52-27 win over the Ducks last season at Autzen Stadium — left for the NFL after his junior year, skipping Stanford’s bowl game last season to train for the draft.
Love rushed for 119 yards and caught a 49-yard touchdown pass to lead the Cardinal to a 25-23 win over North Carolina in the Sun Bowl.
Shaw knew he still had something special in the backfield before this season kicked off.
“Every time Bryce touched the ball for us the past two years there is a collective pause that happens on our sideline, and on the other sideline there is a gasp,” Shaw said. “You can actually hear that anticipation because he is so explosive. …
“I’m excited for the possibilities.”