Cardinal runners thrive on competition

Stepfan Taylor (33), Anthony Wilkerson (32) and Tyler Gaffney (25) each give Stanford something a little different in the running game. US Presswire

(Cue the Jan Brady voice) Andrew Luck, Andrew Luck, Andrew Luck!

It's all that anyone outside of the Bay Area talks about when the topic of Stanford football passes the lips.

Yeah, he's good. Really good. But he's certainly not the be-all, end-all when it comes to the Stanford offense. Lost in the Luck hyperbole is an incredibly efficient and potent rushing attack that more often than not takes a backseat to No. 12.

The Cardinal's run game will have to be at its best on Jan. 2 when Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. There are yards to be had against a Cowboys rush defense that ranks 83rd nationally and yields 180 yards per game.

The greatest victim of this overshadowing is running back Stepfan Taylor, whom head coach David Shaw has called one of the most underrated running backs in the nation on more than one occasion.

"I think he plays 7 yards behind one of the best players in Stanford school history," Shaw told reporters after practice last week. "I think that's why he's underrated."

Taylor is the perfect mixture of speed, power and balance. He plays more compact than his 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame and often drags opponents for extra yards. For the second straight year, Taylor has rushed for more than 1,000 yards, netting 1,153 this season to go with eight touchdowns and 5.6 yards per carry. And he's done it rotating with three other backs plus a fullback who usually gets a few carries each game.

"We have a short-yardage, goal-line back that gets a lot of touchdowns [Jeremy Stewart], but Stepfan still has been effective in the red zone and catching passes," Shaw said. "He just does everything well. Does everything right. I'm sure at some point he'll get his just due.

"But at the same time, he doesn't care. He has fun. He loves playing. He recognizes that we have Tyler Gaffney and these other guys that can play, too. I think he just loves playing with his teammates."

Taylor, along with Gaffney, Stewart, Anthony Wilkerson and -- at least a couple of times each week -- fullback Ryan Hewitt make up a rushing attack that produces almost 208 yards per game and ranks 22nd nationally.

"We all pretty much do different things," said Taylor, the most well-rounded of the backs and the strongest pass-blocker. "They like to use us, and we all deserve to be on the field. They find ways to get all of us involved. Stewie has the power; Wilk has the speed off the edge. The coaches find ways to put us in the best spots."

Like all of the aforementioned backs, Gaffney was "the guy" coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. So going to a running-back-by-committee wasn't easy to swallow. It's still not.

"It takes some adjustment, and I wouldn't say I like it," said Gaffney, who averages a team-high 6.4 yards per carry among players with at least 11 total carries. "You can't like it as a running back. You want the ball. You want to help the team as much as possible. There is a rhythm to the game where you feel how fast the flow is of the defense, whether they are real aggressive or playing back. You don't get to feel that rhythm because I'll be in for two or three plays and then out for 10. Or I'll be in for 10 and then out for three. You never really know how much you are going to play or when you're going to play. You are just waiting on the sideline for your number to be called."

And that breeds competition. Taylor knows Gaffney is lobbying for carries. Gaffney knows Wilkerson is lobbying for carries. Short-yardage specialist Stewart knows Hewitt could get the call on third-and-short.

"If you're not playing well, there is going to be a guy stepping up who will," Gaffney said. "You have to bring your A-game every carry and every play. I wouldn't say we're breathing down each other's necks, but for lack of a better term, that's what it is. You have a feeling that if you have a couple of bad runs, you might not be going back in, and they might let the other guy ride it out."

So, you have a brilliant quarterback who checks his running backs into the best play against the best defense, and you have four backs clawing at one another for carries. All that's missing is the best run-blocking offensive lineman in the country with a nasty attitude to boot. Oh yeah, Stanford has that, too.

"Football is a physical sport, and the point is to move the other guy," said guard David DeCastro, widely regarded as the most NFL-ready interior lineman in the country. "There is no magic pill you take that makes us run the ball well. It's practice and repetition and hard work. You're trying to push the other guy backwards. That's football."

The running back quartet has combined for 26 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards on the ground this season. And, yes, even Luck has to get a lot of the credit for the success of the running game.

Shaw has spoken extensively about what Luck does pre-snap and how he coordinates the running game. So when lining up, do the running backs see the same things as Luck?

"I don't think anybody sees what he sees," Gaffney said. "When he puts us in a play, 99 times out of 100 we're in agreement that it is going to be our most successful rep."