Stanford hasn't stunned too many people by being 4-1 at this point, but their road and method have both been revelations. Nobody saw the Evanston debacle coming, and after that certainly nobody saw Stanford turning into the Pac-12's resident offensive juggernaut, yet here we are. That Christian McCaffrey has been crushing comes as no surprise. However, it's time to give some due and perspective (or lack thereof) to the work put in by Kevin Hogan. For S's and G's, I posted a tweet this week that put up the numbers of two players:
Player A: 70.6 Comp % 8.6 YPA
Player B: 78.6 Comp % 11.6 YPA
Player B is Hogan this year so far in conference play. Player A.....is Andrew Luck during his Senior season numbers in Pac-12 play. Now, pump on the brakes before you tell me to pump on the brakes. Nobody here is trying to convince anybody that 8=12. That would be ludicrous. However, it does contextualize how good Hogan's been and how far he's progressed this year. As Scott Reiss pointed out on The Bootleg Red Zone Report this week, there are now Heisman watch lists that have Hogan as high as seventh. As I pointed out to Reiss, there were many who would have placed Hogan as the seventh-best QB in the Pac-12 when this season begins. Hogan's numbers above lead the conference, and by healthy margins. He's got a 6-1 TD-INT count and his 209 QB rating is 21 points higher than anyone else. All this statistical candy is backed up by what I've seen on film, and there were a number of plays that showed just how far Hogan's come in Stanford's 55-17 win over Arizona last Saturday night.
With 8:05 left in the first quarter, the Cardinal comes out in its favored Trips Left Single Back Single Right formation. At the snap, Arizona Defensive End Reggie Gilbert takes Kyle Murphy to "swim" school and gets missile lock on Hogan. Kevin calmly hard plants right and then side steps Gilbert and scampers in that same direction towards the line of scrimmage. He's quickly resets his vision downfield and while still on the run hits Freshman Trent Irwin for 18 yards. Most QB's are comfortable throwing while running to their arm side. Hogan made throwing away from his arm side look much easier than it is, and it's one of the big steps forward he's made thus far.
As the first quarter clock runs under two minutes, Stanford is once again in its "Money" formation, and here we get to use a fancy QB-Guru word to describe the best part of this play. The Cardinal does something interesting with the timing of this play. At the snap, Schultz and Hooper streak left up the field, but Devon Cajuste literally goes nowhere at first. His brief pause allows the space to open up from the clearing tight ends. Hogan is once again dogged by Gilbert, who had a very frustrating quarter trying to sack #8. Hogan steps up and climbs the pocket before dropping an absolute dime to Cajuste right down the left seam just before Gilbert pops him. Kevin's pass drops perfectly beyond Arizona's Jamar Allen and well in front of the deep safety. Footwork and throws like this one lend credence to the scouts who look at Hogan and see a second round NFL draft pick.
The 2nd quarter has 6:08 to go when the Cardinal goes Twins Left Strong Left Single Back Single Right. Irwin is split wide left and at the snap he loops under the slot receiver and then sprints right into a quick out. This was an ingenious play by Shaw-Vita-Gren as they essentially run a pick-without-a-pick play that creates an easy pitch and catch for Hogan. This wasn't spectacular from the quarterback but it came on a 3rd and 4 and is the kind of drive-sustaining pass that we couldn't always take for granted. The emphasis here is on how well the coaches are enabling Hogan to be such an effective passer.
Facing the always inviting 2nd and 1, Hogan takes the shotgun snap and looks left. Rector is in the left flat but he's got coverage, so Hogan looks to Hooper sitting down over the middle. Two Arizona linebackers have him bracketed, so Hogan then turns right and finds Owusu on a comeback route. Hogan covers the entire width of the field, works through his progressions, moves the defense around with his eyes and shoulders, and makes the play. Nothing schematically or athletically spectacular here, but again, we are seeing strong evidence that Stanford's got a quarterback seeing everything and not in a blur. The word I kept coming back to last Saturday night was control. He just seemed absolutely in charge of what was happening back there, and potentially big hiccups like bad snaps or unblocked D Linemen are dealt with efficiently and with a no muss no fuss vibe.
Our final play unfolds in the third quarter, where Stanford comes out in Trips but it's a "bunched" version, with running back Bryce Love off set left and three yards deep between guard and tackle. Hooper is in the slot left and Cajuste lines up wide right. He is in motion at the snap. Shuler sends another dirt ball at Hogan, but he scoops it up like a first baseman and the play continues. Michael at this point is running full speed straight across the field and linebacker depth right to left. The poor Arizona linebacker steps towards him but has no prayer of impeding him. Hogan steps up in the pocket and hits Rector on the cross. #3 then darts over to the left sideline and bursts into the end zone.
So Stanford sits at 3-0 in league play and they have a quarterback whose excellence is no longer a secret. Hogan completed 76% of his passes to end the season and when asked about that during the summer, Shaw expressed doubt that he'd be able to maintain it. It's hard to blame him. That he's even better to start Pac-12 play is not necessarily indicative of how he'll play the rest of the season, but it certainly vindicates those who thought his ceiling was this high. Stanford's young, undermanned defense was never going to carry the load as it had in the past for the Cardinal, and that put the pressure on the shoulders of a player who proves time and time again that pressure brings out his best. Can he keep up this level of play? It's doubtful, but I also don't expect him to crater. I've compared him favorably to the more celebrated QB's in the conference, and the numbers mean it hasn't been hype. Stanford is going to be a very difficult team to beat moving forward with "Hogan 2.0" as Reiss called him.
Kevin Hogan projects a sincere desire to be one of the guys. When the Cardinal walks through Chuck Taylor Grove on its way to the stadium locker room, you have to scan very carefully to find him. He's not out in front, he's usually dressed as inconspicuously as possible, and he's usually alone in his thoughts as he strides. He always seems so cool, and I always feel better because you get the sense that no moment is going to overwhelm him. As Ben Muth pointed out, he's always been "nails" in big games, and now he's moved well past that "game managing" status so many identified as his ceiling not to long ago.
I asked him on Saturday night whether there was something to his new on the field celebration, the one where arms, index fingers, and eyes go to the sky, or if it was just something improvised in the middle of the chaos. He said that there was some significance to it, because it was him "giving thanks" to "what's above" and celebrating all the blessings he's been able to enjoy. He didn't elaborate past that, and he didn't need to. There was an answer I expected, but I wasn't going to put words in his mouth, and he spoke simply and honestly. It was kind of fitting that he kept his response short, because his game is doing all the talking these days, and it's revealing plenty about how lucky Stanford is to have him under center.
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