STANFORD, Calif. -- Much like his performance Thursday night against Oregon, Tyler Gaffney's decision to give up baseball and return to Stanford came in small, grinding increments.
In the midst of his first season as a minor league baseball player, one year removed from the Stanford football team, Gaffney would watch the Cardinal play and miss it a little bit. Then he'd watch another game and miss it a little bit more. By the time the Rose Bowl came around, his mind was made up. He was giving up baseball and returning to play running back for the Cardinal.
Thursday night's performance paralleled his decision -- slow and deliberate. He'd carry the ball for a little bit. And then a little bit more. And when all the numbers were added up, Gaffney had carried a school-record 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown in Stanford's 26-20 win over Oregon. His long was 16. His short was minus-1, one time.
With the victory, the No. 5 Cardinal (8-1, 6-1) seized control of the Pac-12 North and kept their national championship hopes alive while severely wounding No. 3 Oregon's (8-1, 5-1).
Gaffney was in attendance for his former team's 17-14 overtime win over the Ducks last season. It wasn't a tipping point, but it pushed him one step closer to coming back to football. And with every yard gained against the Ducks on Thursday night, it reaffirmed his choice.
"It was definitely a progressive decision," said Gaffney, who now has 13 rushing touchdowns on the year. "I did it for myself and what was best for me from a school standpoint and a football standpoint. Every game contributed a little bit. It didn't come down to one game. It was everything I'd seen, and what I wanted to do."
Thursday night, Stanford was the benefactor of that decision.
"We rode him like Secretariat," said Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. "At one point, I got on the head set and asked, 'Is this child abuse?' I asked him if he was doing OK when he got close to 40 carries, and he said he wanted to keep going."
Added Stanford coach David Shaw: "Forty-five carries -- I don't want to do that to anybody. We might have taken a year off his life tonight. But it's what our guys needed, and he rose to the challenge."
The entire team did as the Cardinal snapped Oregon's streak of 18 straight road wins. With the win, the Cardinal improve to 12-1 at home against ranked teams since 2009 -- the lone loss coming to Oregon in 2011.
Per ESPN Stats & Information, 47 of Gaffney's yards came after contact, meaning he was taking some folks with him. As a team, Stanford had more rushing yards after contact (86) than Oregon had for the game (62).
"It was a grinder," Gaffney said. "We made the holes. Oregon is really good at filing in with their safeties and their backside backers. It came down to lowering the shoulders and hope for the best."
Their best was a second straight win over Oregon, 274 rushing yards on 66 attempts, 42 minutes and 34 seconds of possession and 14 of 21 third-down conversions.
"They did a great job of just grinding it, and grinding it and grinding it and getting a bunch of short, third-down conversions," said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich.
With the Cardinal looking to fill the void of the graduated Stepfan Taylor, the school's all-time leading rusher, the running back job looked up for grabs following the 2012 season. And then Shaw got a text from Gaffney after the Rose Bowl that asked, "Hey coach, can we talk?"
"I knew exactly what that meant," Shaw said. "We had a home stretch toward the end of the year, including the Pac-12 championship game, where he was done with baseball and he was just around. We teased him about coming back. I honestly thought he'd give baseball two years, and then he'd be coming back next year."
Since his return, Gaffney has scored at least one touchdown in eight of Stanford's nine games. With the defense pitching a shutout through the first 50 minutes, the responsibility fell on Gaffney to muscle first downs (he averaged 3.5 yards per carry) and play the possession game. The Cardinal strung together a pair of 96-yard scoring drives -- including a 20-play, 96-yard drive to close out the first half that ate up 8:26 of clock and ended with one of Jordan Williamson's four field goals.
"We knew we were going to grind, and we knew we were going to grind with Tyler," Bloomgren said. "Did we think it was going to be 45 carries? No. You never expect that. But he's the type of guy that can handle it. So we just gave it to him and let him loose."