STANFORD -- Tyler Gaffney was a spectator when Stanford won the 2012 Pac-12 championship, watching from the stands as the Cardinal secured its first Rose Bowl berth in 13 years.
One year later, Gaffney is the central player in Stanford's title defense.
If the senior tailback continues his recent dominance, the Cardinal's prospects for victory Saturday at Arizona State improve dramatically.
If the Sun Devils limit Gaffney's production and force Stanford to rely on an aerial attack that has been erratic on the road, the advantage swings to Arizona State.
"He's the key," Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. "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."
Gaffney, who took a one-year hiatus from college to play professional baseball, rumbled for 87 yards in Stanford's 42-28 victory over ASU in September.
But it wasn't until the middle of October that he shed the last remnants of physical and mental rust and morphed into a one-man wrecking crew.
Running behind one of the top offensive lines in the country, Gaffney has averaged 152.5 yards and scored 10 touchdowns in the past six games.
Add his receiving totals, and he accounts for nearly 40 percent of Stanford's yards from scrimmage over than span.
"I'm a much better back," he said. "I've got a grasp of the offense. I've come to the realization of what we're trying to do each run play, each pass play, and where I fit in.
"I meet with the coaches every week to figure out what I can do better and what the thinking is behind every play. At this point, I answer my own questions as I'm asking them. The game has slowed down a little more every game.''
Gaffney could have a decisive impact Saturday without posting big numbers. If the Sun Devils overload the line of scrimmage to keep him in check, passing lanes should open downfield.
Cal and Washington State tried that approach, and quarterback Kevin Hogan responded with eight (total) touchdown passes.
The one scenario Stanford probably can't overcome Saturday is minimal production from Gaffney against a defense that isn't overloaded. In other words: If ASU beats the Cardinal at the line of scrimmage with a standard alignment.
"We have to be ready for everything," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We have to know they'll do some things to defend the run, but we'll be determined to run the ball. They know that. Regardless what they do, we're still going to run."
Stanford leads the conference in kickoff coverage and kickoff returns, while ASU is last in net punting.
In the first meeting, the Sun Devils muffed one punt attempt, resulting in a safety, and had another blocked.
The Sun Devils are in good shape when it comes to field goals, however: Freshman Zane Gonzalez has made 88 percent of his kicks and was a first-team all-conference selection.
For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at 408-920-5716.
Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12)
at Arizona State (10-2, 8-1),
4:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN