The Pac-12 has two finalists for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s premier running back. Obviously, neither contender—Arizona junior Ka’Deem Carey or Washington junior Bishop Sankey—is Stanford senior Tyler Gaffney.
Gaffney is left out of the conversation of many a postseason award, but with his 133-yard, three-touchdown performance in Stanford’s 38-14 win over Arizona State Saturday, he received another individual honor of its own special significance: Pac-12 Championship Most Valuable Player.
"This is why I came back, being on this stage," Gaffney, who missed the 2012 season while playing professional baseball, said in Saturday's postgame press conference.
He immediately set the tone on a tight-rope-walk touchdown rush from 69 yards out to give Stanford a lead it held for almost the entire night, save a brief tie on Arizona State's ensuing possession.
Gaffney’s big night against the vaunted Sun Devils defense is unlikely to propel him into an increasingly muddled Heisman Trophy picture, the way Stanford predecessor Toby Gerhart's did in the Cardinal’s final game of 2009. Another running back already did that Saturday, as Tre Mason ran wild for 304 yards in Auburn's defeat of Missouri in the SEC Championship Game.
He may again be overshadowed on a national stage, but there’s no denying Gaffney was central to Stanford's outstanding campaign. He heads into the postseason with 1,626 yards and 20 touchdowns, and his best performances have come against the Cardinal's premier competition.
Gaffney rushed for 171 yards against UCLA, 157 yards against Oregon, 158 at USC and 189 at Notre Dame. His three touchdowns Saturday were more than Carey and Sankey had against the Sun Devils defense combined.
A strong case could be made that Gaffney is the most important running back to his team in all of college football. Though that may not land him any more individual honors, it's crucial to Stanford's pursuit of a second Rose Bowl title.
Two Roads to the Rose Bowl
Stanford was “coming out of nowhere” on its march to the 2012 Pac-12 Championship and last January’s Rose Bowl, Shaw said in his postgame press conference Saturday. With three-year starting quarterback Andrew Luck gone for the NFL along with other key pieces from the Cardinal’s two previous BCS-bowl participants, Stanford was supposed to be in something of a rebuilding mode.
The 2013 Cardinal were stocked with veterans and entered the season ranked No. 5 nationally, a designation that put a target firmly on the Pac-12’s defending champions.
“We got everybody's best game,” Shaw said. "[Pac-12 opponents] played great against us. We had two bumps in the road [in losses at Utah and USC] and a lot of people wrote us off after that."
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, especially in college football. There’s a reason even the era’s most dominant dynasty, Alabama, only ran the table once on its way to three national championships from 2009 to 2012.
Stanford was nine points shy of a perfect regular season, losing at Utah by six and USC by three. The second loss, on Nov. 16, could have eliminated the Cardinal from Rose Bowl contention, but the program's outgoing seniors took it as a challenge.
"Our seniors never batted an eyelash," Shaw said. "They said, 'Let's keep our heads down and win as many games as we can, and see where we are at the end of the year.'"
Where they are now is in a second consecutive Rose Bowl, an impressive accomplishment even if it's not a spot in the BCS National Championship five days later. There, the Cardinal meet Big Ten Champion Michigan State, which bumped Ohio State from a spot in the Jan. 6 title game.
“It’s hard to go undefeated, man,” Shaw quipped after hearing the 34-24 final score from the Big Ten Championship.
Stanford Excels at Trench Warfare
Sometimes the most resounding lessons are those that are reinforced. Stanford reinforced that its rise to another Pac-12 championship was built on the front line.
“Stanford's extremely physical. Best offensive line we played,” Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said in his postgame press conference.
The Cardinal offensive front paved holes for Gaffney and gave quarterback Kevin Hogan ample protection to survey the field. Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton broke through for one sack of Hogan Saturday, but otherwise the Cardinal offensive line held him in check.
"Their defensive line really dominated the run game, and that hurt us," Graham said. "Their defensive line, the veterans, the depth they have...their destroying the line of scrimmage...makes it very difficult for us."
Aside from a 51-yard touchdown rush by sophomore running back D.J. Foster and his 69-yard scoring scamper off a screen pass, the Sun Devils were forced to scrap for every foot.
No single series was more indicative of Stanford's excellence in the tightest of confines than its third-quarter stand from the goal line. Arizona State wide receiver Kevin Ozier was denied the end zone after Taylor Kelly's 11-yard pass.
With two shots from just a yard out, backup quarterback Michael Eubank, brought on in a power formation, was denied when Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov dived over the pile to disrupt the play. Sophomore safety Zach Hoffpauir's stuff of De'Marieya Nelson on fourth down effectively ended Arizona State's rally effort and characterized the Stanford mentality.
"Kudos to our [defensive] line," Skov said. "We were ready to fight for every blade of grass at that point."
Home-Field Advantage vs. Neutral Site
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said in his media address prior to Saturday’s championship that after three installments of the league’s title game, the results of playing on a participating team’s campus are positive.
"Just terrific, and everything we hoped for when we created the Pac-12 Championship Game in this model, to see that the city's going to benefit," he said. "The community, the university, the fans were rewarded with this extra game and are able to support their team that earned it with the best record in the conference."
The three other conferences with championship games in the Group of Five, which will have priority in the forthcoming College Football Playoff, play at neutral sites. The Big Ten introduced introduced its title game the same year as the Pac-12, 2011, in Indianapolis. The ACC has rotated between Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. Atlanta hosting the SEC title tilt is a deeply entrenched conference tradition.
Scott said that because of the Pac-12's geographic footprint, the host-school model was the most logical option, guaranteeing attendance from at least one of the fanbases represented.
"I like the idea that we feel confident we'll have a great crowd...with a local fanbase and a collegiate atmosphere," Scott said.
But in playing in a former NFL stadium Saturday, the benefits of a professional venue were also evident. Nearly 70,000 filled Sun Devil Stadium Saturday, setting the conference championship game’s attendance record—not a particularly noteworthy feat, given the previous two games were played at 54,000-seat Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., and 50,424-seat Stanford Stadium.
The Pac-12 men's basketball tournament moved to Las Vegas last March. Efforts to build a modern venue in Sin City, as detailed via The Las Vegas Review-Journal, offer an intriguing possibility. According to Scott, the Pac-12 has no shortage of options for its championship future.
"We have a plethora of choices if we ever choose to [play the championship game] at a neutral venue," Scott said.
All quotes obtained firsthand.