Fifth-year senior Tyler Gaffney has rushed for 1,485 yards in not only his first season as a starter, but his first season since leaving football after the 2011 season to play minor-league baseball. Gaffney stands at No. 3 on Stanford's single-season rushing list, and is within 45 yards of No. 2 Stepfan Taylor.
Gaffney will have an opportunity to overtake Taylor when No. 7 Stanford (10-2) takes on No. 11 Arizona State (10-2) for the Pac-12 Championship on Saturday in Tempe, Ariz. At stake for the showdown -- kickokff is 4:45 p.m. (ESPN) -- is a trip to the 100th Rose Bowl.
Shaw said he believes the NFL is a better fit for Gaffney rather than the major leagues.
"Yes, I do," Shaw said. "I've seen him play baseball. I know he's good, but I think he's an NFL back."
Gaffney's style is exactly what NFL scouts are looking for, Shaw said. He's consistent, runs hard and physical and is great in pass protection.
"He's shown that he's a complete back," Shaw said. "You hand him the ball and he's going to get more than what the play's blocked for. He's going to break tackles, he's going to run through guys. He's going to turn a four-yard gain into an eight-yard gain. He doesn't shy away from contact. He takes it and delivers it. When you have a guy like that, your sideline feeds off it."
However, Gaffney is not ready to make a football/baseball decision just yet.
"I would love to play in the NFL," he said. "I'll probably have a little better hint after this season. I'm not going to think about my future until then."
Gaffney has gained more than 900 yards in his past six games, and clearly is at a different level than he was earlier this season when he was establishing himself as an every down back while also shaking off some rust.
Against Arizona State earlier this season in a 42-28 win by Stanford, Gaffney rushed for 87 yards on 18 carries. It came during a stretch in which he did not reach 100 yards in each of the first three Pac-12 games.
"I would like to say I'm a much better back," Gaffney said. "I've got a grasp on the offense. I've come to the realization of what we're trying to do on each play, where I fit in."
Gaffney has made a habit of seeking weekly conversations with his coaches to discuss how he can improve. Those meetings have evolved to the point where, "I'm answering my own questions as I'm asking them."
One more thing about Gaffney: "I do think going away helped him," Shaw said. "It showed him how much he loves football."
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Playing the Sun Devils again is a marked difference to playing the 2012 Pac-12 Championship against UCLA only six days after playing the Bruins in a regular-season finale.
"It's a better for the coaches when you say you have to treat this like a new game and a new team," Shaw said. "It's easier to grasp that because the first game was so long ago.
"We haven't played them in a long time. Let's reintroduce them. We're a little different than we were earlier in the season. We've been through a lot more, positive and negative. It's a new game."
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Stanford has gotten support from an unlikely source, Arizona's star running back Ka'Deem Carey, the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
Carey and Stanford insider linebacker Blake Martinez were backfield mates at Tucson's Canyon de Oro High School. Before Arizona's 42-16 upset of Oregon that vaulted Stanford back into the Pac-12 Championship game, the former teammates shared a text message or two.
"Do what you need to do," Martinez texted.
"I got you bro," Carey responded. "Just wait."
Carey rushed for 206 yards on 48 carries and scored four touchdowns.
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In the regular-season matchup between the two teams on Sept. 21, Stanford jumped out to a 29-0 halftime cushion and led, 39-7, entering the fourth quarter before Arizona State scored three late touchdowns. Stanford and Arizona State did not play each other in 2011 nor 2012. Prior to the 2013 regular-season meeting, the two teams last met in 2010 as the seventh-ranked Cardinal downed the Sun Devils, 17-13, in Tempe.
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Stanford and Arizona State posted identical 7-0 home records during the regular season. Stanford, the only Pac-12 team to defeat Arizona State this season, is 3-2 on the road . . . Stanford's two losses this season have come on the road to unranked opponents the week following a home victory over a top-15 team . . . Stanford is 9-0 in its last nine games against opponents ranked in the AP top 25 . . . Shaw owns a 3-1 record on the road against top-25 opponents over the past two seasons with all three wins coming against Pac-12 foes (2012 at No. 1 Oregon, 2012 at No. 15 UCLA, 2011 at No. 20 USC). The lone loss came in 2012 at No. 7 Notre Dame . . . Stanford, Alabama and Oregon are the only FBS teams with at least 10 wins in each of the last four seasons . . . Stanford is 47-18 (.723) all-time when ranked in the top 10.