As soon as Kevin Hogan trotted in, the dark clouds parted. The sun shined again on a Stanford football team that had seemed destined for offensive ineptitude after two more futile drives against the nation's worst defense.
Hogan's 18-for-23, 184-yard, two-touchdown showcase of dual threat efficiency was the most refreshing breath of fresh air a 6-2 team playing Colorado could have possibly enjoyed. It re-established offensive proficiency, renewed excitement about a season in which BCS aspirations still live, and reminded folks of that one guy named Andrew Luck -- never a bad sign.
But was it all fool's gold? It came against what is possibly the country's worst team and certainly the nation's worst defense. These were the same guys who had trailed 55-10 at halftime to Fresno State, the ones giving up an NCAA-worst 6.95 yards per play.
The Hogan-led 48-0 thrashing presented a paradox. Because of poor opponent quality, it meant everything and nothing for Stanford -- simultaneously.
A pass straight into the turf, though, is well-defended even by a high school defense. A Pop Warner team can tackle Zach Ertz if the throw takes him down to the ground for them. Josh Nunes was struggling with the short-to-medium range throws that are oxygen to Stanford's ground-and-pound attack. So along those lines of efficiency in the intermediate passing game, Hogan's grand tour provided an ongoing sugar rush for a fan base that had been dozing off during a season populated with three-and-outs.
Now comes the test of sustained proficiency for Hogan, a showdown at home against no. 11 Oregon State. Stanford removed its gloves during the Boulder Beatdown. The Farm Boys are positioned to give Oregon State, Oregon, and UCLA (66-10 winners over Arizona) their best shot with Roses dangling within reach.
Better Late than Never, But Never Late is Better
There can be a latent feeling of disappointment that it took David Shaw over two-thirds of the season to make a move that could have been executed at halftime in week three, when Nunes had hit the brick wall of what is an otherwise porous USC defense. Stanford is only two or three simple offensive plays away from being 9-0 and ranked no. 3 in the country right now, so the possibility that the Cardinal might have had just a slightly better quarterback riding the bench this whole time is hard to ignore. But it's also a maddening and futile thought, considering the past cannot be undone and the future still holds tantalizing potential rewards for Shaw's 2012 club.
All sights should be set on the Beavers, Ducks, and Bruins now -- after, of course, the page is turned on Hogan's memorable performance and the Stanford defense's dominance.
It was a performance whose first completion was, fittingly, to fullback Ryan Hewitt. The Braveheart warrior entered the game with only three catches on the season a year after hauling in 34 balls from Andrew Luck. Hogan immediately involved Hewitt in the passing game twice, providing a quick microcosm of the most substantial improvement that no. 8 brought to the quarterback position: the ability to hit talented Stanford playmakers out of the backfield.
Nunes' day ended after drive two, when he failed to spot a wide-open Stepfan Taylor out of the backfield and forced an incompletion to Zach Ertz instead. Hogan made no such mistakes, finding his running backs as outlets when necessary and connecting with Ertz in stride so that his physicality could be applied to runs after the catch.
Additionally, Hogan was Stanford's leading rusher, racking up 55 yards on the ground. This threat undoubtedly helped the Cardinal pick up its first six third downs with Hogan in the game, a marked improvement for a team that entered the game moving the chains on fewer than 35 percent of its tries. Of course, a trio of NFL-caliber throws didn't hurt Hogan, either. Once, he delivered a strike of lightning on a deep in pattern to Jamal-Rashad Patterson. He followed with a perfectly-placed seam lob where only the six-foot-eight Levine Toilolo could catch it and wrapped up with a spectacular deep out completion to Drew Terrell from the opposite hash marks.
Improved Play-Calling, Too
Hogan's proficiency gave the Stanford coaching staff the confidence to actually call play-action at the goal line in the second quarter. With Colorado sold out against the inside run in the same way that Notre Dame was in overtime back in October, Ertz was alone for his score. Credit the coaching staff for adding more play-calling diversity on top of that fake: Patterson's 42-yard reverse was a play last seen for no. 21 in 2009, when the freshman bolted for his first career touchdown against Arizona State.
An Elite Defense Gets Help
Stanford's defensive domination started when Henry Anderson destroyed Colorado's right tackle early for the first of seven Cardinal sacks. That set up the sequence that produced Ed Reynolds' 52-yard interception return, the safety's third pick six of the season. Reynolds now leads the country with 221 interception return yards, substantially more than Ty Montgomery's 173-yard offensive receiving totals. Sure, no. 88 has been injured -- but who saw that coming?
The Cardinal dominated the Buffaloes with bone-crushing hits the rest of the way, highlighted by true freshman Alex Carter's explosion that dislodged 260-pound senior Nick Casa from the football and provided A.J. Tarpley with Stanford's second interception. Carter was still laying wood in a 45-0 game as the Farm Boys suffocated Colorado to the tune of negative 21 rushing yards. The Cardinal now lead the nation in total rushing defense (surpassing Alabama), sacks, and tackles for loss.
Stanford also flexed its defensive depth, getting key pass defense contributions and a forced fumble from reserve nickel back Ronnie Harris. He and true freshman Zach Hoffpauir sandwiched Casa with a jarring hit that provided one of the game's many defensive highlights and also showcased defensive numbers that will be critical if the Cardinal have any hope of staying fresh once Eugene comes calling.
Jordan Williamson was also impressive, booting almost all of his kicks through the end zone.
In the end, though, it all came against Colorado. But improvement cannot be denied. There's a newfound buzz of optimism surrounding Stanford football as it enters the home stretch. That's all that the trip to Boulder could have possibly bought, so count it as a true win.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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