Stanford isn’t going to go out of its way to try and play the misdirection game with Arizona State in Saturday’s Pac-12 championship game.
And ASU isn’t expecting surprises. It knows what Stanford wants to do and what Stanford is going to do. Hand the ball to running back Tyler Gaffney. Rinse. Repeat.
“He’s a consistent warrior,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “He’s the key. And the key for him is the guys in front of him. Best offensive line we’ve played against all year long, hands down. Best-coached football team we’ve played against.”
This is why Gaffney came back to Stanford following a one-year hiatus to play minor league baseball. He missed out on playing in the Pac-12 championship game and winning the Rose Bowl last season. And nothing would make him happier than to make up for lost time.
“This is exactly the kind of thing you come back for,” Gaffney said. “You come back for the whole game experience, but this game is more touted because the Pac-12 championship is on the line. I came back to play with my boys and play for the Cardinal. But playing for the Pac-12 championship doesn’t hurt, either.”
In the first matchup between these teams in September, Gaffney rushed for 87 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That was Stanford’s third game of the season and Gaffney was still returning to football form. Physically, he was there, but , there were still kinks to work out in regards to technique, timing and tempo.
But over the second half of the season, he's figured it out big time. Gaffney has rushed for 1,023 yards (146.1 yards per game) with 11 rushing touchdowns in his last seven games. Only six other backs in FBS football have more yards over that stretch.
“I feel like it took me a few games to figure it out and catch my stride,” Gaffney said. "Every game I’m becoming a better back because I’m figuring out something new. It could be a little nit-picky thing or a big thing. I’m not making the same mistakes twice and not running that many new plays anymore, so I think most of the time I’m right. It comes down to execution in this offense.”
And even when that execution breaks down, Gaffney has still found success. Of his 284 carries this season, only 25 have gone for zero or negative yards.
“You’ve seen unbelievable determination,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “And not everything is blocked perfectly. He takes a lot of pride in not having negative plays. If a play looks like it’s about to be minus-2 and its plus-2, that’s a huge play for him. When a play is supposed to be four yards and he gets 12 yards, he loves those. He runs with so much determination and leg drive and body lean. He loves when the game gets tight and he loves when the game is really physical. Right now he’s the embodiment of our running game.”
With the departure of Stepfan Taylor, Stanford’s all-time leading rusher, finding a running back who could carry the load was a priority. And then when Gaffney contacted Shaw about coming back, the coach knew he’d have a consistent, bruising running back who could carry the ball 300 times and get the hard yards.
“You can tell he’s a very seasoned, mature, veteran player,” Graham said. “He just brings it every single play. Whether it’s the first quarter or the last quarter, he gets stronger as the game goes on and he’s gotten stronger as the season has gone on. We’ve got to make sure we do a great job of keeping him contained. The key is winning the line of scrimmage, which is a big challenge. It’s going to be a heck of a war between a great offensive line and a great defensive line and a great tailback.”
Likewise, Gaffney recognizes that while he might be a better back than he was in September, ASU’s defense is better as well. ASU wrapped up the season yielding 133.8 yards per game on the ground (27th nationally), finishing eighth in sacks and 22nd in tackles for a loss. Much like Stanford’s, ASU has a defense that knows how to wreck backfields.
“They’re night-and-day better from the first time we played them,” Gaffney said. “I like to think we’re the same. We’re both better teams and it’s going to be a great matchup. We match up well. They are super athletic so we’re going to have to do what we do best and that’s execute and keep their offense off the field.”