NCF Nation: Tyler Gaffney

Pac-12's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
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Today we put a bow on the 2013 season (almost -- a few more review posts are coming up, and then probably a few more after that). But today across the blogosphere, we’re categorizing some of the top moments and individuals from the Pac-12 season. These are set in stone and in no way open to argument or interpretation.

Best coach: Arizona State's Todd Graham was voted as the league’s coach of the year by his peers. And it’s hard to argue with that, given the fact that the Sun Devils had the best league record and won their division. But you can’t discount the job of the L.A. coaches (interim or otherwise). Ed Orgeron did a phenomenal job in relief at USC before Steve Sarkisian was hired, and Jim Mora shepherded his team through a difficult time early.

Best player, offense: Ka’Deem Carey was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the year. And the Pac-12 blog agrees. Certainly, cases can be made for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was on the Heisman Trophy track before being derailed by a knee injury. And there is the debate between Carey and Washington running back Bishop Sankey, which will rage until the end of days.

Best player, defense: The coaches went with Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton. And there’s nothing wrong with that selection. But cases certainly can be made for outside linebackers Trent Murphy (Stanford) and Anthony Barr (UCLA).

Best moment: Lots of them. Shocking upsets (see below) and stellar individual performances dusted the landscape of the 2013 Pac-12 season. But in terms of moments that were seared into our memories, it’s tough not to think about UCLA’s come-from-behind win at Nebraska way back on Sept. 14, following the death of Nick Pasquale. Specifically, Anthony Jefferson recovering a red zone fumble and then sprinting off the field to give the ball to Mora, followed by a big hug. It was as authentic and genuine a moment as you’ll find in sports.

[+] EnlargeKodi Whitfield
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford's Kodi Whitfield had a highlight touchdown grab against UCLA.
Biggest upset: Take your pick between Utah topping Stanford or Arizona topping Oregon. Both were road losses for the favorites and both shook up the national and league landscape. Granted, Utah’s win over Stanford came earlier in the season, and early-season losses are easier to rebound from. Oregon’s loss to Arizona came at the end and cost the Ducks all kinds of postseason possibilities.

Best workhorse performance: It’s a tie between Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney and Carey -- both of whom put in the work in their teams’ victories over Oregon. Carey rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns on 48 carries; Gaffney carried 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown.

Best play: One of the most subjective categories, for sure, but Kodi Whitfield’s one-handed touchdown catch against UCLA was nothing short of spectacular. He elevated between two Bruins defenders and backhanded the ball out of the air for a 30-yard touchdown. Something about UCLA-Stanford brings out the one-handed catches. Recall in 2011, Andrew Luck hauled in a one-handed catch against the Bruins, and a few plays later, Coby Fleener snagged a one-handed dart from Luck for a touchdown.

Best performance, offense: Again, wildly subjective. Take your pick from Ty Montgomery’s five-touchdown day against Cal, Marion Grice’s four touchdowns against USC or Wisconsin, or Myles Jack’s four touchdowns against Washington. Brandin Cooks had a pretty nice day against Cal with his 232 receiving yards. There were games with seven touchdown tosses from Mariota and Taylor Kelly. Connor Halliday’s losing effort against Colorado State was spectacular. In terms of impact, it’s hard not to go back to Carey’s effort against Oregon.

Best performance, defense: As in every other category here, plenty to go around. But think way back to Washington State’s win over USC. Damante Horton had a 70-yard interception return that tied the game at 7-7 in the second quarter. Then, after Andrew Furney’s 41-yard field goal put the Cougars ahead 10-7 with 3:15 left in the game, Horton picked off Max Wittek, which allowed WSU to run out the clock.
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PASADENA, Calif. -- Michigan State rallied from an early 10-point deficit to dominate the final three quarters against Stanford in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Here's a quick recap of the Spartans' victory.

It was over when: Middle linebacker Kyler Elsworth, replacing the suspended Max Bullough, stuffed Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt (along with help from Shilique Calhoun and others) on fourth and-1 with 1:34 left and the ball at Stanford's 34-yard line. Stanford had used its final timeout, so Michigan State ran out the clock.

Game ball goes to: MSU quarterback Connor Cook. He had several heart-stopping throws, including one of the worst pick-sixes you'll ever see in the second quarter. But Cook once again didn't let a mistake faze him, and he displayed his tremendous skill in attacking Stanford's secondary. He recorded his second consecutive career-high passing performance (332 yards) on his second mega stage, completing 22 of 36 attempts with two touchdowns. His first two career 300-yard passing performances come in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl. Not too shabby.

Stat of the game: Stanford recorded a 43-yard pass to Michael Rector on the game's second play from scrimmage and a 47-yard Tyler Gaffney rush late in the first quarter. The Cardinal had a 51-yard pass play in the third quarter. Those three plays accounted for 141 of Stanford's 305 total yards. The Cardinal ran only nine plays for 23 yards in the second quarter, excluding a kneel-down on the final play of the half.

Stat of the game II: Michigan State became the first team to rally from a halftime deficit to win a Rose Bowl since the 2000 game, when Wisconsin erased a 9-3 Stanford lead and won 17-9 behind Ron Dayne.

What Stanford learned: The Cardinal still struggle to beat teams that can match them physically, especially up front. All those big linemen and creative formations didn't make much difference against a swarming Michigan State defense that surrendered only 11 first downs and 305 yards (mostly on three plays). Stanford learned that it wasn't a true national title contender, losing three games to teams that mirrored its style of play. And while David Shaw remains an elite coach, his conservative play calls seemed to cost his team down the stretch.

What Michigan State learned: The Spartans are an elite program led by an elite coach in Mark Dantonio and an elite staff. They have an elite quarterback in Cook. They can overcome the loss of an elite player in Bullough. Michigan State learned it can play on the biggest stages with the best teams in the country and beat them with power football. The Spartans never went off track, even after a shaky start, and made enough plays in all three phases to record one of the biggest wins in program history.

The Big Ten's bowl lineup is now official. Both participants from the league championship game are headed to BCS bowls, while five others will play postseason games in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The overall lineup doesn't seem quite as daunting as last season's, when the Big Ten had zero top-10 teams and played three top-10 opponents in the postseason.

We'll be breaking down these games for the next few weeks, but we wanted to share our first impressions of the lineup:

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Jan. 1: Michigan State vs. Stanford
Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3: Ohio State vs. Clemson
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Iowa vs. LSU
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 28: Michigan vs. Kansas State
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Nebraska vs. Georgia
Texas Bowl, Dec. 27: Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Let's begin ...

Adam Rittenberg's first impressions

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMark Dantonio's Spartans enter the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak.
Best game: Rose. The most tradition-rich bowl will celebrate its 100th edition with a matchup of teams with traditional offenses based around the power-run and aggressive, hard-hitting defenses. Michigan State recorded the signature win of the Mark Dantonio-era against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and enters the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak, winning each contest by at least 10 points. Both teams have standout defenders (MSU's Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen; Stanford's Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jordan Richards), underrated quarterbacks in Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan and impressive running backs in Jeremy Langford and Tyler Gaffney. Good times.

Worst game: Gator. I'm probably not as upset about this one as Brian (or most Nebraska fans), but a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl featuring two teams playing without their starting quarterbacks doesn't move the needle. At least running backs Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) and Todd Gurley (Georgia) are fun to watch.

Sneaky good game: Capital One Bowl. Not sure how sneaky this one is, but both teams are talented on both sides of the ball and easily could have better records. The game features the nation's most talented defender in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney against one of the nation's most accomplished defenders in Wisconsin's Chris Borland. The Badgers' seniors want to go out on a good note after a stunning home loss to Penn State, not to mention three consecutive losses in the Rose Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: The Big Ten records a winning record with at least one BCS bowl win. This season's lineup is slightly more favorable, and four wins certainly isn't out of the question. Ohio State and Minnesota both should win their games, and Michigan State, while less experienced than Stanford in BCS games, is playing its best football. Wisconsin needs to rebound, Iowa has a tough draw and both Michigan and Nebraska have been enigmatic, but the Big Ten should expect a little more in its final season of its self-created meat-grinder bowl lineup.

Brian Bennett's first impressions

Best game: The Rose Bowl is tremendous and looks to be the second-best game outside of the BCS title game. But let me also put in a plug for a possible underrated Orange matchup between Ohio State and Clemson. I saw Clemson earlier this season, and while the Tigers stumbled badly against Florida State and South Carolina, they are loaded with athletes. Put Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde all on the same field, and you're guaranteed some fireworks. Both teams score more than 40 points per game so we could have an entertaining shootout with some intriguing back stories (the Woody Hayes punch, Urban Meyer's return to the state of Florida).

Worst game: Minnesota had a great season and has a legitimately good defense and solid running game led by David Cobb. So I was hoping to see the Gophers get a chance to prove themselves against a decent opponent. Unfortunately, they drew a 6-6 Syracuse squad that beat absolutely no one and has an even lower-scoring offense than Minnesota. A bowl win is probably all that matters to Jerry Kill and his players, but I think they deserved a better showcase opportunity.

Sneaky good game: Outback. Iowa will have to make up for a talent gap with LSU -- as most teams do when they play the Tigers. But the Hawkeyes really hit their stride in the season finale at Nebraska, and they have only lost to teams ranked in the top 20. LSU, meanwhile, will be without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL in the season finale, and this was not a vintage Tigers' defense. Both teams like to run the ball a lot, and Iowa linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey must continue to lead the way for Phil Parker's defense. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get an ending half as good as the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: At least one BCS win is a necessity, especially with opponents who are similar in style in both games. Winning at least one of the games against the SEC on New Year's Day is also important; that holiday has been unkind to the Big Ten of late, and Georgia and LSU look more vulnerable than usual. An overall winning record is possible and could start to change the conference's image. Another sign of success will be if Wisconsin can avoid adding to Clowney's postseason highlight reel.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 15

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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Taking stock of the Pac-12 championship game and weekend that was.

Team of the week: Stanford beat Arizona State 38-14 for the Pac-12 championship and its second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
Kevin French/Icon SMITailback Tyler Gaffney and the Cardinal are headed to the Rose Bowl to face Michigan State.
Biggest play: Arizona State, trailing 31-14 late in the third quarter, faced a fourth-and-goal inside the Stanford 1-yard line. A touchdown and PAT would have reduced the margin to 10 points and made for a potentially interesting fourth quarter. Instead, De'Marieya Nelson was stopped for no gain. The Cardinal took the ball and went 99 yards for a TD to start the fourth. Game over.

Offensive standout: Stanford RB Tyler Gaffney earned Pac-12 championship game MVP honors after rushing for 133 yards and three touchdowns in the Cardinal's victory over Arizona State.

Defensive standout: Stanford OLB Trent Murphy had seven tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble against the Sun Devils.

Smiley face: Stanford lost two games on the road it should have won, but the bottom line is when the smoked cleared the Cardinal had outlasted everyone else in the Pac-12. That's saying something in a season when the conference was perhaps deeper than it ever has been.

Frowny face: In a season when the Pac-12 might have been the nation's best conference, it didn't get a second BCS bowl invitation. That will cost all 12 teams about $500,000.

Thought of the week: The USA Today coaches' poll counts in the BCS standings and that's too bad for the Pac-12. Each of the Pac-12's four ranked teams are lower in the coaches poll than the AP poll. Why is that? Incompetence? Stupidity? Regional bias? It's bad enough that it should be brought up in the offseason by USA Today to the coaches who vote. As in: "Hey, guys. Don't be stupid. Pay attention to strength of schedule. If you want to rank a Pac-12 team seventh, rank it fifth. You'll look smarter." The good news is the final coaches poll included how each coach voted. You can count on the Pac-12 blog revisiting the issue this week, such as wondering how in good conscience Clemson coach Dabo Swinney could vote Stanford 10th.

Questions for the week: Two years ago, the Pac-12 wrote off a poor bowl record due to having two BCS bowl teams and a 10-2 USC team ineligible. That meant every Pac-12 team was promoted up a spot or two in the bowl pecking order, thereby facing a tougher foe. That won't be the case this season with nine bowl teams and just one playing a BCS bowl game. The Pac-12 gained great national credibility this year. Just about everyone saw it as the nation's No. 2 conference and a legit challenger to the SEC. But credibility will start to leak with bowl defeats. A 5-4 record won't cut it. The Pac-12 needs to go at least 6-3. That's a modest aspiration.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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Five things we learned in the Pac-12 this week:

When Stanford is on, it’s on: Home or away, when the Cardinal are at their best, they are tough to stop. And while Tyler Gaffney’s 22 carries for 133 yards and three touchdowns were huge, obviously, it was the fact that the Cardinal could effectively set up play-action off of those runs that was a key to the game. Kevin Hogan was a very efficient 12-of-18 for 277 yards and a touchdown, including an average of 15.4 yards per completion. He was able to find Jordan Pratt, Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste (two catches, 120 yards) on some big plays. That more than anything kept the Sun Devils defense guessing all night.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDavid Shaw and Stanford celebrated another Pac-12 championship after running over Arizona State.
Line play was key: You need only see the final stat sheet of rushing yards to know which team won the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal pounded out 240 yards on 33 carries (5.5 yards per) with four touchdowns on the ground. Arizona State had just 138 yards on 43 carries with one touchdown for an average of 3.2 yards per carry. Part of that was Marion Grice not being available and D.J. Foster getting hurt. Part of it is Stanford’s run defense is really good. See the goal-line stand in the third quarter.

Not so special: It was a rough night for Arizona State from a special teams perspective. Punter Alex Garoutte averaged just 33 yards per punt, Zane Gonzalez missed his only field goal attempt (31 yards) and Stanford’s Ty Montgomery enjoyed an average of nearly 30 yards per kick return. Said Arizona State coach Todd Graham of his special teams: “It’s absolutely sad.”

Fun facts (via ESPN Stats & Information): With the loss, ASU falls to 7-1 at home this season and end an eight-game home winning streak. … Stanford is going to the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1970-1971. … The Cardinal outscored ASU 80-42 in two games this season. … In its past 10 meetings with teams ranked in the AP Top 25, Stanford is 10-0, including 6-0 this season.

Oregon to the BCS? Probably not. But it doesn’t hurt to hope. With NIU losing Friday night, it opened up the possibility of a second Pac-12 team, namely Oregon, going to a BCS bowl game since there are no non-AQ teams going to BCS bowl games this year. Michigan State’s win over Ohio State throws an additional wrench. Various projections are floating for Oregon. But the most likely scenario is still the non-BCS Alamo Bowl. Orange is all but a lock to be Ohio State-Clemson. Best bet for a BCS bowl is probably the Sugar against Alabama -- and of course the BCS ranking will play a role whether Oklahoma (currently No. 17) gets into the top 14. Texas beating Baylor and Oklahoma State taking care of business certainly would have helped. Neither happened.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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So who deserves a helmet sticker for a job well done?

Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford: Gaffney earned Pac-12 championship game MVP honors after rushing for 133 yards and three touchdowns in the Cardinal's 38-14 win over Arizona State.

Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford: Hogan played perhaps his best road game of the year, completing 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown against Arizona State. He also rushed for 24 yards.

D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State: Foster rushed for a 51-yard touchdown and turned a short pass into a 65-yard score against Stanford.

Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford: Murphy had seven tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble against the Sun Devils.

Chris Young, LB, Arizona State: Young had a team-high eight tackles, including a game-high four tackles for a loss against Stanford. He had a sack, forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State was one of the nation's hottest teams heading into the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford. It had won seven in a row, the longest winning streak in the conference. Further, it was playing at home, where it was 7-0 with a 28-point average margin of victory. The Cardinal's only two losses came on the road.

That was reasonable grounds to believe that the 11th-ranked Sun Devils would fare better against No. 7 Stanford than in their Sept. 21 meeting, a 42-28 Cardinal whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Nope.

Stanford did its smashmouth Stanford thing, and Arizona State was pretty helpless to do what it wanted to do in a 38-14 victory that will send the Cardinal to its second consecutive Rose Bowl, this time opposite Big Ten champion Michigan State.

"They dominated the game -- beat us in every way you can," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.

And how does Stanford dominate? Said Graham, "They destroyed the line of scrimmage."

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTyler Gaffney got Stanford off to a fast start with a 69-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
That's Stanford's thing. While many teams are spreading out defenses and outflanking them while going up-tempo, Stanford just lines up and tries to knock you over. It's not always pretty. But when Stanford is playing its best, it often renders all schematic complexities used against it irrelevant.

Arizona State had a plan, one that it thought would make things different this time. But it couldn't get started because, as Graham said, Stanford was destroying the line of scrimmage.

"I mean, they've made changes, but the way this team operates and the way we function, it's about us," Cardinal linebacker Shayne Skov said. "Offenses will change, but what matters is what we do defensively and offensively. We have to set the tone. We never want to adjust or have to adapt. We want to be the ones setting the tempo and forcing people to adjust to our style of football."

The Cardinal is now 11-2 after playing one of the nation's toughest schedules. How good are they in big games? Stanford is 10-0 in its past 10 games versus AP-ranked opponents, including 6-0 this season.

It's fair to ask how Stanford lost two games, to Utah and USC. But you won't get many excuses from the Cardinal.

"We bring the effort every week, but we didn't get the results we wanted," Skov said.

Stanford doesn't only grind it out, however. It got its first of nine plays of longer than 20 yards on its first possession when running back Tyler Gaffney slipped around the Sun Devils defense and ran 69 yards for a touchdown.

Gaffney would go on to rush for 133 yards on 22 carries with three touchdowns, earning game MVP honors. When the Cardinal went to the Rose Bowl last year, he was a professional baseball player watching from the sidelines in Pasadena. His return to the team, spurred in large part because of that game reigniting his football itch, is a big reason he's going to play in the Granddaddy himself.

"This is exactly why you come back," he said. "This is what you play for."

He now has rushed for 1,618 yards and a Pac-12 high 20 touchdowns this season.

"There is no question that Tyler Gaffney has been the heartbeat of our offense all year," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Gaffney, you just watch him play, and he gets stronger and stronger. He just drags guys."

While Gaffney was the offensive star, junior quarterback Kevin Hogan's performance was perhaps more notable. He has been up and down this year, but he was decidedly up against the Sun Devils, completing 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a score with no interceptions. He also rushed for 24 yards.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
AP Photo/Matt YorkQuarterback Kevin Hogan accounted for 301 yards and a touchdown in directing the Cardinal offense.
"With some of those step-up in the pocket throws and runs, those are huge plays, and we don't win without those plays," Shaw said. "Kevin's got ice water in his veins."

Of course, in contrast to many Pac-12 teams, the Cardinal is defense-first. Stanford held an opponent to 20 or fewer points for the seventh time in as many games. The Cardinal has held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 20 of its past 25 games.

Stanford outgained the Sun Devils 517 yards to 311 and outrushed them 240 to 138, with the Sun Devils getting more than a third of their yards on the ground from a 51-yard first-quarter touchdown run from D.J. Foster. The Sun Devils' other score came on a short pass that Foster turned into a 65-yard touchdown play.

Shaw admitted there was some big-picture, retrospective thinking in his locker room leading up to the game. Stanford, which went 1-11 in 2006, is on an unprecedented run of success, as it becomes the fifth -- and final -- team to go to four straight BCS games.

"I told the players what was at stake," Shaw said. "What was at stake is their legacy."

That legacy is a very specific set of skills. It's simple. And just a bit brutal.

Explained Skov: "We're going to come after you offensively, defensively and attack the line of scrimmage. It's what we do, and we were successful today."

Today and for four consecutive seasons that featured 46 victories, most of which looked a lot like the 2013 Pac-12 championship game.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
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Five things to keep an eye on in Saturday’s Pac-12 championship game between Stanford and Arizona State:

  1. Oh, what a rush: One thing we know for sure about both of these teams is they can get after the quarterback. The interesting element is they do it in very different ways. Per ESPN Stats & Info, since the start of last season, the Cardinal have an FBS-best 92 sacks. And when they are sending just four pass-rushers, they have an AQ-high 67. On the flip side, ASU leads all AQ schools with 48 sacks when sending five or more pass-rushers since the start of last year. They love to attack and blitz. This is important because of …
  2. [+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
    Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesHow will Kevin Hogan do against Arizona State's pressure?
  3. … The Hogan factor: Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has completed 51.8 percent of his passes against the blitz this season compared to 65.3 percent when he doesn’t face extra pressure. And if ASU gets too aggressive, it’s also worth noting that he has seven passing touchdowns after play-action, six of which have come on throws of at least 15 yards downfield. Of his 19 passing touchdowns this year, 18 have been to wide receivers.
  4. Grice on ice: Marion Grice, Arizona State’s leading rusher and third-leading receiver, is likely out because of an injury he suffered against Arizona last Saturday. Grice has been responsible for one-third of Arizona State's offensive touchdowns this season, and his 20 touchdowns (14 rushing, 6 receiving) rank second among FBS skill position players.
  5. Here we come: It's no surprise what Stanford wants to do offensively -- run at the heart of ASU's defensive line. Tyler Gaffney has been one of the top running backs in the country over the second half of the season. He has rushed for 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns (146.1 yards per game) in the past seven games. ASU's defense is tops in the country at getting offenses off of the field. So far this season ASU's defense has 79 drives where it forced a three-and-out. Stanford converts 52 percent of its third downs, and the average distance to go is an FBS-low 5.2 yards.
  6. Containing Kelly: Stanford wants to pound away with Gaffney for a couple of reasons. First, he's a bruiser and it wears down the defense. But it also keeps ASU's offense off the field. ASU's Taylor Kelly has seven rushing touchdowns over the past six games. This is of note because he had only one rushing touchdown in 18 games prior to the current streak. Through 12 games, Kelly already has 3,337 passing yards and is averaging 278.1 yards per game. Worth noting, too, that ASU is 6-7 when Kelly throws an interception and 11-0 when he doesn’t.

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.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTyler Gaffney has gotten stronger and more relentless as the season has wore on.
“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.”

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
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Five things we learned in the final week of the regular season:

We have a venue: On the strength of Arizona State’s 58-21 win over Arizona, the Sun Devils will host Stanford in the third Pac-12 championship game next week in Tempe. How big is this? Consider that Stanford stretched its home winning streak to 16 games by beating Notre Dame, it’s pretty big. The Sun Devils have now won eight consecutive games at home. And while last week’s win at UCLA was a huge maturity moment for the Sun Devils, they are still a decidedly better team when they are playing in the desert. Recall the shellacking Stanford put on the Sun Devils earlier this year on The Farm. Both of Stanford’s losses this year have come on the road. This sets the stage for a very intriguing game with a spot in the Rose Bowl on the line.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesSure, the uniforms were blinding, but the Civil War was well worth risking your vision for as Oregon edged Oregon State.
Rivalries provide thrills: Show of hands: If we would have said Thursday night that one of this weekend’s rivalry games would come down to a single point, how many people would have said The Civil War? Honestly? We wouldn’t have, either. Utah-Colorado is blossoming into a nice little season finale. The Apple Cup kept our interest most of the game. And for those with polarized sunglasses who were able to stand the glare of Oregon-Oregon State, you saw a pretty good game. Others fizzled as UCLA pulled away from the Trojans in the second half and Arizona State routed the Wildcats. Also at question is what's going to happen with the coaching situation at USC -- which again seems unstable after the Trojans were blown out by their rivals. Did Ed Orgeron do enough to warrant dropping the "interim" from his title? Or was it simply a nice run that had to come to an end?

Sankey vs. Carey: No one is going to argue that Bishop Sankey and Ka'Deem Carey aren’t great running backs. In fact, they are two of the best in the country and both have NFL futures. A mini-debate has raged the last few weeks as to which one is better. There is, of course, no real wrong answer because both are outstanding. The good news is both players will be first-team all-league. But if you were looking for a lasting impression, it’s hard to ignore what Sankey did against his rival, rushing 34 times for 200 yards and a touchdown. Carey had pretty good numbers against ASU, but the game was so lopsided that they didn’t count for as much. Either way, phenomenal seasons from both players.

Irish halted: Notre Dame is not the unofficial Pac-12 champ. On the strength of Stanford’s 27-20 win, the Cardinal were able to halt Notre Dame’s stranglehold on Pac-12 teams. Dating back to last season, the Irish were riding a four-game winning streak -- having knocked off Stanford, USC twice and Arizona State. But a 189-yard rushing performance from Tyler Gaffney and a pair of picks from Wayne Lyons helped the league salvage a bit of dignity and avoid a second straight year of being swept.

Now, we wait: The regular season is over. It happens that fast. It seems like only a few days ago your Pac-12 bloggers were laying out their predictions for the season (yes, we’re going to link that post every chance we get). For California, Colorado and Utah, there is work to be done. Utah seems on the verge of breaking through, but can’t seem to keep a quarterback healthy. Colorado made great strides in its first season under Mike MacIntyre, but he’ll be the first to say no one is happy with how the year turned out. And Cal, well, it just needs to get healthy. The rest of the league now awaits its postseason fate. The Cardinal and Sun Devils will square off for a Rose Bowl berth. The rest of the league is likely going bowling -- though a couple of teams will be orphaned and will need to find a bowl game to pick them up. What we learned about the Pac-12 this year is what we learn every year. There’s never an easy week.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
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Here are the players who earned helmet stickers in the Pac-12 in Week 12:

Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State: Halliday completed 36 of 53 passes for 319 yards, none more important than a 25-yard strike to Isiah Myers for a touchdown with 2:15 left. The score stood as the game-winner as WSU improved to 5-5 -- one game shy of bowl eligibility.

Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA: After running for four touchdowns in the Bruins’ 41-31 win against UCLA, Jack maintained he’s “still defense all the way.” Could have fooled us. Jack became the first UCLA player since Maurice Jones-Drew to pull off the feat and is now tied with Jordan James for second on the team with five rushing scores despite playing offense in just two games.

Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: Carey cracked the 100-yard mark for the 13th straight game, running for 132 yards on 26 carries and a score. The Doak Walker Award semifinalist came into the game No. 2 in the nation, averaging 152.6 yards per game.

Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado: Richardson caught 11 passes for 140 yards and broke the school’s single-season receiving record in the process. He surpassed the record previously held by Charles E. Johnson and sits at 1,201 receiving yards on the year.

Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State: Grice ran for 118 yards on 24 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns in the Sun Devils’ win against Oregon State. ASU remains in control in the Pac-12 South with an important showdown with UCLA looming next week.

Andre Heidari, K, USC: Heidari’s day didn’t start too well when he missed the PAT following USC’s first touchdown of the game. But he redeemed himself with a 47-yard field goal in the final minute to lift USC over No. 4 Stanford, 20-17.

Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford: Stanford’s loss won’t fall on Gaffney’s shoulders. The senior carried 24 times for 158 yards and a pair of scores, including a highlight-reel quality 35-yarder in the first quarter.
Chaos could happen. Alabama could lose to Auburn. Florida State could go down in the ACC title game. Ohio State could lose to Michigan. Baylor could falter at Oklahoma State.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTailback Tyler Gaffney's big day -- 45 carries for 157 yards -- helped Stanford crush Oregon's hopes of playing in the national title game.
Then the Pac-12, in the form of either Stanford or Oregon, could slip into the final -- final! -- BCS national title game. Honestly, it wouldn't even require all of that. Because of the top-to-bottom quality of the conference this year, a one-loss Pac-12 team might end up first among equals in the BCS standings. Unbeaten Alabama and a bunch of one-loss teams? Stanford probably would come first among those with a single blemish, though then the nation would commence a bitter and grotesque "quality loss" debate.

So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Pac-12 wiggles its way back into one of the top two spots.

But our premise here is that doesn't happen, that things don't go all 2007 again. Our premise here is the Pac-12 again is shut out of the national title game.

A CliffsNotes version of what follows: Drat. But justifiable.

The Pac-12's last national championship was USC in 2004, which means the drought will be a full decade when we head into the first season of the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014.

The conference did play a supporting role in two of the best BCS title games: USC falling to Texas after the 2005 season in one of the greatest college football games in history, and Oregon being nipped by Auburn by a last-second field goal after the 2010 season.

Still, in the preseason this felt like the year of a breakthrough. This felt like the year in which the Pac-12's two top dogs, Stanford and Oregon, had the pieces in place to win a title and dethrone the SEC after seven consecutive championships. They both had experience at quarterback. Both looked strong on the offensive line. Both had A-list talent on defense.

(And both had united to defeat evil!)

Sure, both had questions. But all teams do. Stanford and Oregon had begun to look like programs that answer questions on an annual basis. You know: Like Alabama, which was supposed to be questionable on defense and, well, isn't.

Yet after both the Cardinal and Ducks went down, those questions returned. Stanford's middling passing attack was a major reason the Cardinal lost at Utah. And one suspects that if linebackers Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay were on hand, Oregon wouldn't have allowed Stanford to convert all seven of its third-and-2 or shorter plays with Tyler Gaffney runs last Thursday.

Might have things been different for either team if, say, Stanford had a healthy Henry Anderson for Utah, or if Oregon QB Marcus Mariota was 100 percent last Thursday? Maybe. But that's speculation trying to subvert the bottom line reflected on the scoreboard.

Judging who should play for the national title, which is always subjective in our present system and will continue to be with the four-team playoff, ultimately involves the totality of the season, so how things look on Nov. 11 is pretty meaningless. But how things look to me today is that Alabama and Florida State should play for the national title and that they both look better than either Stanford or Oregon.

Maybe that changes, because a week ago I was ranking Oregon No. 1. It probably would change if Alabama lost to Auburn, or if Florida State went down in the ACC title game. Stranger things have happened.

But my chief reaction after the Stanford-Oregon game was: Neither of these teams would beat Alabama. My feeling wasn't as strong for Florida State, but the Seminoles have yet to reveal any weaknesses so far this season.

I can feel the rage already exploding out there from Pac-12 fans. Such an assertion surely will make Pac-12 fans angry, but I suspect that 75 percent of those currently enraged actually, perhaps not even that deep down, agree with me. They just don't want to hear it or read it.

But the role of the Pac-12 blog is not to advocate for the conference. It distributes tweaks to other regions when necessary or even just for the amusement of doing so. But there's also a credibility issue. If we're telling folks Oregon/Stanford has the best chance of any team in the nation to beat Alabama and end the SEC's run, it should be a honest assessment, not a stroking of the regional ego or some public-relations move.

So today's assessment, impermanent as it may prove to be, is this: The Pac-12 will not play for the national title this season because it doesn't deserve to.

Again: Drat. But justifiable.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 10 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Is there any doubt? Stanford, again a substantial underdog to No. 3 and unbeaten Oregon, again controlled the line of scrimmage with its trademark physical style in a 26-20 victory on Thursday, that final score in no way reflecting the complete control the Cardinal had from bell-to-bell. It was a total team effort, featuring a great plan from the coaches that was well-executed by players who relish their underdog status when compared to flashy Oregon. Nerd Nation rules again. (But don't celebrate too long, Stanford. The season's far from over.)

[+] EnlargeKelly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTaylor Kelly led two fourth-quarter TD drives as Arizona State rallied to beat Utah on Saturday.
Best game: Arizona State trailed at Utah for most of three quarters, and it entered the fourth quarter down 19-7. It looked like a familiar scenario: The Sun Devils blowing it on the road. But QB Taylor Kelly, stymied most of the afternoon, led two fourth-quarter TD drives and Will Sutton iced the game with, of all things, an interception with 1:01 remaining for a 20-19 victory.

Biggest play: While there were a number of big plays in the above game, no play was as "Good golly!" good as Myles Jack's 66-yard touchdown run for UCLA at Arizona. For one, he's a linebacker. Second, it was on a third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter just after an Arizona TD that reduced the Bruins' lead to five points. The Wildcats would score a TD on their next possession, so UCLA needed all the points it got. And the nation got introduced to Jack, a certain freshman All-American who is already being referred to as a first-round NFL draft pick.

Offensive standout: In the preseason, Stanford's offensive line looked like the nation's best unit. At times during the first half of the season, it didn't live up to that billing. But against Oregon it was dominant against a good defensive front. It not only paved the way from RB Tyler Gaffney's 157 yards on 45 carries, it also held the Ducks without a sack. QB Kevin Hogan was hurried just once. Stanford beat the Ducks because it made time of possession matter, with the offensive line playing the most important role in converting 14 of 21 third-down plays as well as the only fourth-down attempt. Last season's win over Oregon was about the Stanford defense. This one was about the O-line.

Defensive standout: Stanford LB Shayne Skov led the Cardinal's defense, which was pretty darn salty against the Ducks, with nine tackles (two for loss), two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He also broke up a pass and had two QB hurries.

Special teams standout: USC's Nelson Agholor returned punts 75 and 93 yards for TDs in the Trojans' 62-28 beatdown of California.

Special teams standout II: Against Arizona State, Utah punter Tom Hackett averaged 50.6 yards on nine punts, with a long of 70. He killed three inside the Sun Devils' 20-yard line and was a big reason the Utes controlled field position most of the afternoon.

Freakish two-way standout: Jack, a true freshman, became a national sensation on Saturday -- despite the late West Coast kickoff -- when he turned in helmet-sticker worthy performances on BOTH sides of the ball. On defense, he had eight tackles, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery. On offense, he rushed for a team-high 120 yards on just six carries, including the aforementioned 66-yard touchdown.

Smiley face: In recent seasons, just when things started to go well for Arizona State and UCLA, it became time to bet against them, particularly on the road. Both lacked consistent mental toughness. But both might be changing their ways. Both won on the road against good foes, overcoming myriad momentum shifts when they looked like they might be in trouble. Is it possible that their game on Nov. 23 will match top-15 teams with the stakes being the South Division? Maybe.

Frowny face: As great as Stanford's win is for Stanford, the Cardinal -- for the second consecutive season -- ruined the Pac-12's chances to put a team in the national title game. The Pac-12 hasn't won a national title since USC in 2004. The conference, in fact, has played in the title game only once since then, with Oregon getting nipped by Auburn after the 2010 season. While the league isn't mathematically eliminated -- if there's only one unbeaten team at season's end, the Pac-12 has a good shot at being No. 1 among the once-beatens -- it is a bit disappointing that the conference likely won't finish 2013 with the No. 1 team, thereby ending the SEC's streak of 103 consecutive national titles. Plus or minus.

Thought of the week: Oregon fans should stop panicking or allowing the nationwide trolling to get to them. College football nation: If the Ducks have been truly unmasked and your rough-tough team would dominate them, then why not seek them out for a nonconference game? Ohio State, Baylor, Florida State, Alabama, etc? If the Ducks are just a gimmick team, sign a game contract for a home-and-home series. Out West, however, we won't hold our breaths for one reason: Those teams want no part of that. Why? Because while a very good Stanford program, which is rougher and tougher than just about anyone, has won two in a row against the Ducks in impressive fashion, Oregon remains an elite team that can slice and dice the hopes and dreams of an opponent before it can say, "I wish my team hadn't been brave because now I can't be an anonymous trash-talking troll on Twitter."

Question for the week: Is the Pac-12 still in the Heisman Trophy hunt? Sure, there's been an overreaction against Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, sprained knee and all, after the Ducks went down to Stanford and he didn't play well on a big stage. And Arizona losing to UCLA diminished Ka'Deem Carey's chances. But what happens if one or both finish strong? You could make an argument that both are the best players at their positions. Difficult to imagine at least one won't get an invitation to New York for the ceremony.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
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So who deserves a helmet sticker for a job well done?

Stanford: We could give a helmet sticker to RB Tyler Gaffney for his 45 carries for 157 yards. We could give it to his offensive line. We could give it to LB Shayne Skov, who led a stout defense with nine tackles, two for loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Or the entire defense, which shut down the Ducks' offense. Or we could give it to David Shaw, defensive coordinator Derek Mason and the entire Stanford staff. But it's our freaking blog, so we're giving this extra large helmet sticker to the entire program.

Nelson Agholor, WR/PR, USC: Agholor caught only five passes for 35 yards, but he left little doubt about the special teams player of the week. He returned punts 75 and 93 yards for TDs in the Trojans 62-28 beatdown of California.

Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State: With the Sun Devils high-powerd offense stuck in second gear, Sutton led a stout defensive effort with nine tackles, a tackle for a loss and an interception, which clinched a 20-19 victory at Utah. The Utes had just 247 total yards.

Keith Price, QB, Washington: In a 59-7 win over Colorado, Price completed 21 of 29 passes for 312 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 29 yards and a score as the Huskies became the conference's eighth bowl-eligible team. Oh, and Price didn't throw a pass in the second half.

Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA: The Bruins true freshman had eight tackles, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery on defense, and he rushed for a team-high 120 yards on just six carries, including a 66-yard touchdown that gave the Bruins their final TD in a 31-26 win at Arizona.
STANFORD, Calif. – For obvious reasons, there was no talk of titles -- national, Pac-12 or otherwise -- from the Oregon side following Stanford’s 26-20 victory over the Ducks Thursday night.

That Stanford won isn’t/shouldn’t be considered shocking. That Oregon was scoreless through three quarters might be. That the Ducks stormed back for 20 points in the fourth quarter in only an eight-minute span makes perfect sense.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMarcus Mariota had a rough night against Stanford as rumors swirled about a possible knee injury.
And the Pac-12 has again dragged itself into November chaos. That's par for the course.

Heading into Thursday night’s showdown, the No. 3 Ducks represented the Pac-12’s best chance for a national championship. A victory over No. 5 Stanford would have almost guaranteed they’d jump Florida State in the BCS standings and put them back in the No. 2 spot. From there, it was as simple case of winning out and advancing to the title game.

But for the second year in a row, the Ducks' BCS title hopes were severely wounded at the hands of a Stanford defense that was dominant on the line of scrimmage and an offense that jack-hammered its way up and down the field.

“Any loss is disappointing,” said Oregon first-year coach Mark Helfrich. “Where we’ve put ourselves and where our players have put ourselves, it’s obviously magnified. … We don’t hold the cards anymore, but we never hold the cards. We have to come back, prepare and get ready for whoever is next.”

And next is Utah -- the team that could ultimately go down as the fly in the Pac-12’s title ointment after it knocked off Stanford in Salt Lake City last month.

The Cardinal seized control of the Pac-12 North. With victories over USC and California, the Cardinals would again represent the North Division in the Pac-12 championship game. Their regular-season finale against Notre Dame also takes on a greater importance when considering the BCS landscape.

The Cardinal still need some help if they hope to get into one of the top two spots in the BCS rankings. Florida State, Alabama and Ohio State are all undefeated. And the chances of a one-loss team -- even one with a résumé as impressive as Stanford’s -- making that kind of jump seems improbable. There is obviously much football to be played. But for now, 2013 projects to play out much like 2012. If the Cardinal win out, they’ll likely go to another Rose Bowl and a one-loss Oregon team should find its way into a BCS game as an at-large team.

But that’s a lot of ifs.

“You know, it’s November. It’s November,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “We talked as a team about [how] it’s time to play our best football. No one has seen our best football, and that’s including us. Tonight was about three and three quarters of it, and that’s what we talk about. We can’t be satisfied. We can’t be satisfied with how we finished the game. I’m not happy about it one bit. We can’t be satisfied with one win. We’ve got to win in November. We’ve got a tough game next week against an outstanding USC team that’s playing great and we’ve got to be ready to roll.”

For the Ducks, there is plenty to lament in a game accented by turnovers and missed opportunities. Twice Oregon advanced inside the Stanford 5-yard line and twice they were turned away. Both failures led to 96-yard scoring drives by the Cardinal.

And then there was the issue of Marcus Mariota’s injured knee. Reports started to circulate just before kickoff that he had a sprained MCL, and the coach and quarterback tip-toed around the issue during the postgame non-festivities.

“It is what it is,” Mariota said. “It’s a little banged up, but it’s nothing too extraordinary. We’re just going to take it and get healthy and I’ll be ready next week.”

Asked if he thought Mariota’s knee was bothering him, Helfrich said: “I don’t know. Everybody’s banged up this time of the year.”

Still, the Cardinal defense kept Byron Marshall and De’Anthony Thomas bottled up. The Ducks managed just 62 rushing yards and were 3 of 10 on third-down conversions.

“We don’t concede points,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, who made 10 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles. “People can write what they want to and say what they want. But what counts is the guys that take that field. Eleven guys on offense take the field and 11 guys on defense. What happens between the lines is dictated by us. That’s the only thing we can control and that’s how we play.”

In the national picture, Oregon’s loss feels more significant than Stanford’s win because it takes another undefeated team off the board. But in the Stanford locker room, where things were far more festive, this victory sends a message that Stanford’s sustained success is not by coincidence.

“It’s huge,” said running back Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 45 carries. “I think the whole nation knows, and us especially, that this is a play-in game for the Pac-12 North. To be able to win the Pac-12 championship, you have to go through Oregon or you have to go through us. That is the mentality.”

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