STANFORD, Calif. - The opportunity to play Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship game on Saturday offers a benchmark for Stanford cornerback Wayne Lyons. In the first meeting with the Sun Devils this season, he tied for the team lead with nine tackles, but admitted to poor decisions that helped fuel a Sun Devil comeback.
Stanford’s 42-28 victory on Sept. 21 was characterized by a 39-7 lead followed by a three-touchdown Sun Devil fourth-quarter rally.
“I remember having a sluggish second half of that game,” he said. “Gambled on a few plays. Cost us a few points. Specifically, there was a slant play where I dove for the pass breakup and I missed. The guy ended up running for a touchdown. That’s a play that sharpened my mind.”
Lyons said that game helped him pay attention to the small details and taught him to play smarter – lessons that have helped him ever since.
Lyons was injured as a freshman and had one start as a sophomore, but David Shaw, Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, said Lyons’ career arc is “trending upward.”
Lyons had two interceptions in the final five minutes against Notre Dame last week to stifle an Irish comeback and preserve a 27-20 victory.
“He’s gotten progressively better,” Shaw said. “He’s gotten a lot smarter. He understands the game more. He’s getting a feel of being a really good corner.
No Stanford players received top individual honors on the All-Pac-12 football team, which was released Monday. However, Shaw thought outside linebacker Trent Murphy, the national leader with 13 sacks, did enough to earn Defensive Player of the Year. The selections were made by a vote of conference coaches.
“I don’t know if anybody in our conference causes more problems than Trent Murphy,” Shaw said.
However, Shaw was buoyed by the inclusion of fifth-year senior captain and defensive end Ben Gardner, who missed the final four games of the regular season because of an arm injury.
“He’s got a lot of respect around the league,” Shaw said. “He’s difficult to account for, because of his speed, his quickness, but also because of how smart he is. He reads linemen, quarterbacks, backfield sets. Sometimes, he’s calling out the play before it happens.
“We didn’t push for him at all, that’s from the coaches in the conference, and I think that makes it really special.”
Gardner has begun to do some lower-body training, but won’t be ready to consider upper-body work for at least a month, preventing any chance at a bowl return.
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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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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.
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.”
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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 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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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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When Lyons was a junior at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he created the “Wayne Lyons Virtual Book Club.”
Lyons, the valedictorian and three-year class president, explained the origins.
“As a young guy, I struggled with reading,” Lyons said. “Your time is full of activities, whether it’s football practice or hanging out with your friends. You don’t really have too much time to set aside for reading.”
Through social media, Lyons encouraged classmates to set aside 20 minutes a day to read for enjoyment, and to share their experiences on a Facebook page.
“That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “Getting people to start reading.”