Stanford Football: Andrew Luck

Planning for success: Stanford

September, 30, 2014
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This past Saturday, the Washington Huskies managed only a measly 2.7 yards per play, but Stanford's offense and kicking game both bumbled their way to performances so shaky that the Cardinal were flirting with defeat until the final gun.

That description of Stanford's 20-13 victory probably sounds familiar because it has applied to a bevy of recent Cardinal games. Stanford has done a plethora of things well over the past two seasons, but offensive performance in scoring range is not on the list of positives.

This might seem preposterous given the current struggles, but when it came to red zone scoring efficiency in 2011, Stanford was the nation's No. 1 team. Fast-forward less than three years to experience the jarring drop-off: The Cardinal have tumbled to No. 121 in that category (and there are only 128 FBS teams).

In 2011, Stanford scored on 97 percent of its trips to the red zone. Through two Pac-12 games so far this season, the Cardinal have converted red zone opportunities into points only 50 percent of the time (Icing on the cake: Against USC, Stanford managed only 10 points despite reaching the Trojans' 35-yard line nine times).

But while the numbers are gruesome, the ending of the game in Seattle should make Stanford optimistic about carrying offensive improvement into South Bend. Though it seemed an invisible brick wall was protecting Washington's end zone for three-and-a-half quarters (a bulldozer named Ty Montgomery rammed through it once), the Cardinal appeared to rediscover their formula of red zone success in one late drive against the Huskies.

Let Hogan be Hogan?

A surface-level look may associate Stanford's dramatic plunge in red zone productivity with Andrew Luck's departure to the NFL. Upon a closer look, though, the story here isn't that simple, because the offense's ability to score at close range didn't truly fall off a cliff until several games into Kevin Hogan's tenure. Case in point: Hogan actually pushed the Cardinal attack to a 100 percent red zone scoring rate after he took over in 2012. It wasn't until 2013 and this early 2014 stretch that Stanford turned into an inconsistent, bewildered mess when it approached the end zone.

The Cardinal lacked their usual tight end threat last year, and they're missing the 220-pound bell cow (Tyler Gaffney, now with the New England Patriots) that they'd grown accustomed to at running back this year. Though there's still enviable talent all over the offensive formation, it almost seems as if Stanford's shifts of positional strength the past two seasons have led to uncertainty in the pressure cooker of the red zone.

The current wishy-washiness in scoring range contrasts starkly with the simple, effective philosophy Stanford showed during Hogan's first year: Power runs bruised opposing defenses and lured them into overcommitment on the inside before well-timed play-action took full advantage of Hogan's athleticism and big targets on the outside. The Cardinal are now implementing a wide range of new looks and formations, but more hasn't meant merrier. It's been tough to identify Stanford's offensive backbone in the red zone, and Hogan's play there has suffered as he's been forced to deliver in situations outside of his comfort zone. The drastic statistical drop-off reflects this.

Some change was finally evident during that game-winning drive at Washington, though. The Cardinal simplified their approach in a 13-13 tie. For two pivotal plays, it felt like old times again: A rapidly-improving offensive line paved the way for 12 yards from Kelsey Young on the inside. From the 5-yard line, Stanford reintroduced its heavy-duty bunch formation, suckering Washington -- anticipating yet another interior run -- to the middle. That set the table for a deceptive yet beautifully simple play call, one that put Hogan right in his element of athleticism: He sprinted right and beat the lone Husky defender to the pylon for the game-winning score.

Stanford's return to its bread and butter let Kevin Hogan be Kevin Hogan, the athletic quarterback who has a nose for big plays whenever he's on the move against a defense preoccupied with the hand-off. More of the same will be critical in Saturday's showdown at No. 8 Notre Dame. Against a potent opponent, Stanford would be wise to avoid over-reliance on its defense, and that can only happen if its offense returns to a decisive, dominant 2012 form at close scoring range.

Links: Graham buys 'Poison' home

June, 23, 2014
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It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.
As you might be aware, Oregon and Stanford are in the midst of two very impressive runs having combined to appear in eight BCS bowls over the past five years.

The reasons are aplenty, but ESPN Insider's Brian Fremeau provided a fascinating look Insider at how the two programs have measured up offensively compared to the rest of the country over that time frame.

It's not just yards, yards per play, points -- you know, the simple stuff -- that he takes a look at, either. Fremeau's Offensive FEI ratings take into account a whole lot more than that. Starting field position and defensive strength are factors, while drives that are killed by the clock are not.

A more detailed explanation for the metric can be found here and the more I read about it, the more I shook my head in agreement. Especially this part:
A team is rewarded for playing well against good teams, win or lose, and is punished more severely for playing poorly against bad teams than it is rewarded for playing well against bad teams.

In looking at every program in the country, it was determined the Ducks ranked No. 4 and Cardinal No. 5.

While last year might have been the only year in the five-year range Oregon didn't qualify for a BCS bowl, the data suggests the Ducks took a step forward offensively and appear destined to get even better next season.
The team with the best opportunity to rank first in opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency this year is the Ducks. Oregon returns nine offensive starters, including quarterback Marcus Mariota, the nation's leader in total offense yards per play last season (9.1). Oregon has had a top-20 opponent-adjusted offense every year since 2007, and the Ducks' 2013 version was the best according to FEI.

Having Andrew Luck's entire career apart of the dataset certainly helped the Cardinal, which trended backwards last season. Still, compared to what the traditional stats say, Stanford still was pretty good last year coming in at No. 22.
The Cardinal are the biggest surprise in our Program Offense ratings, propped up by the strength of the opposing defenses Stanford has faced in the past few years. The Cardinal played the fourth-toughest set of opponent offenses last year according to our data, and performed admirably, ranking 12th nationally in explosive drives (21 percent of possessions) and 23rd in available yards.
Here is how the Pac-12 teams stacked up nationally in 2013, according to the index:

No. 4 Oregon
No. 6 Arizona State
No. 11 UCLA
No. 13 Washington
No. 19 Arizona
No. 22 Stanford
No. 28 USC
No. 35 Utah
No. 39 Oregon State
No. 55 Washington State
No. 85 Colorado
No. 89 California

My math isn't advanced as Fremeau's, but I can tell you 22.5 percent of the top 40 offenses came from the Pac-12 and that's pretty impressive.

New Washington coach Chris Petersen's former team, Boise State, checked in at No. 49.
Happy Friday.
 
We continue our list of five predictions for the second half of Stanford's spring practice.

No. 4: Backup quarterback competition begins

With Ryan Burns sidelined for the first half of spring football due to disciplinary reasons, Evan Crower was able to strengthen his grip on the backup quarterback job behind starter Kevin Hogan.

When the second session begins on March 31, Burns must take advantage. It's the last stretch of football the Cardinal will have before highly-touted freshman Keller Chryst crosses the street from Palo Alto High and ultimately becomes Burns’ biggest competition.

Pending a serious injury or some sort of breakout season that ends with Hogan leaving early for the NFL, he still has two years left as the team's starter. And since Crower is from the same class, the starting job in 2016 figures to be a competition between Burns and Chryst.

In the short term, establishing himself as the primary backup to Hogan would help Burns' longterm development. He'll take more first-team reps, he could see the occasional mop-up duty and obviously would be in position to play if something were to happen to Hogan. Being the backup didn't work out for Brett Nottingham, who backed up Andrew Luck in 2011 as a redshirt freshman before being beat out by Josh Nunes and Hogan the following season, but it would still an advantageous position to be in for two seasons before 2016.

Burns arrived at Stanford the No. 4-ranked pocket passer in the nation in 2013, and, at the time, received the highest scout grade (85) ESPN had assigned to a Stanford recruit dating back to 2006.

His suspension doesn't help his pursuit of the backup job, but he's a talented player and should make the backup quarterback competition worth paying attention to the rest of spring and into fall camp.

Chryst is the same caliber recruit. He was the No. 3-ranked pocket passer in the most recent recruiting cycle and the No. 3-ranked player overall in California.

On signing day, Cardinal coach David Shaw spoke glowingly of Chryst, whose father is 49ers quarterback coach Geep Chyrst: "There are things you can teach playing the quarterback position and things you can't. You can't teach 6-4, 235 and athleticism that can throw the ball 70 yards. You just can't teach that stuff. You see a young man with ability and physical tools and toughness. Best thing for us is that we don't feel the need to rush his development."

Countdown

No. 5: Whitfield will emerge at safety
We finish our look at Stanford's top 5 impactful recruiting classes of the past decade.

No. 1: 2008

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Luck was the clear headliner of Stanford's 2008 recruiting class.
It doesn't compare with the class of 2009 in terms of overall contributors, but in 2008 Stanford signed the most important class in recent memory.

With a full year to put it together, Jim Harbaugh's staff signed an 18-man class following a 4-8 season. Of the group, 10 have spent time with NFL teams including the 2012 draft's No. 1 overall pick, QB Andrew Luck.

Along with Luck, OG David DeCastro (first round) and OT Jonathan Martin (second round) both left with a year of eligibility remaining after the Cardinal qualified for back-to-back BCS bowls.

S Michael Thomas (Dolphins), S Delano Howell (Colts), CB Johnson Bademosi (Browns) and WR Chris Owusu (Buccaneers) were among eight true freshmen that played in 2008.

In 2009, Owusu, as a kick returner, became the first member of the class to earn first-team all-conference honors. DeCastro, Howell, Luck, Martin received honorable mention recognition that season.

The following year, when Stanford won the Orange Bowl, Luck was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. DeCastro and Martin were both first-team all-conference selections and Howell was a second-team pick.

In 2011, the final season for the majority of the class, Luck, DeCastro, Martin, Howell and LB Chase Thomas were all first-team all-conference picks.

Thomas, who is now with the Packers, finished his career with 27.5 sacks, which ranks fourth in school history. Thomas, C Sam Schwartzstein and P Daniel Zychlinski were the only remaining members from the class that held significant roles as fifth-year seniors in 2012.

The class also included TE Konrad Reuland, who transferred from Notre Dame and is now with the Jets.

Countdown

No. 2: 2009

No. 3: 2007

No. 4: 2010

No. 5: 2006
You take the van, I'll keep the dog.
STANFORD, Calif. -- Richard Sherman has kept a consistent presence around the Stanford football program since being drafted in 2011, but Tuesday's visit to spring practice was a little different.

He returned a Super Bowl champion.

The All-Pro cornerback is part of a group of several NFL players -- including Andrew Luck, Zach Ertz and Jonathan Martin -- back on campus as part of a coordinated trip. More than 20 are expected back at some point to train together and take advantage of the program's new alumni locker room, which was part of a $21-million addition to the Arrillaga Family Sports Center completed in October.

"It's unbelievable, man," Sherman said. "It feels nice to have somewhere to go when you come here. You don't have to borrow or bum any of the young guys' lockers."

That Stanford has a designated area for NFL players is symbolic in the program's rise.

"It's a testament to a lot of groups of guys. It's testament to the group of guys that came before us who set the groundwork for us," Sherman said. "Jim Harbaugh did a heck of a job changing the culture and changing the mindset and also the players now."

Sherman's arrival was good timing, too. The Cardinal are still without a full-time defensive backs coach following Derek Mason's departure for Vanderbilt and are in the process of converting Kodi Whitfield from receiver to safety. Sherman made a similar change, albeit to corner, while he was at Stanford.

The Seahawks star spoke with Whitfield and other defensive backs about technique during position drills and watched from the sideline during team drills.

"He's trying not to coach from the sidelines, but he can't help himself sometimes," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Just the fact that he's here, just the fact that he's around kind of reaffirms why some of these guys are here."

Sherman said he would like to get into coaching after his NFL career is over, but said he's more interested in the high school level.

He will spend the majority of his offseason in Seattle, but, along with several others, plans on being a visitor to his old home.

Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

Taking it a step further and just looking at each individual coach's best team (in college) also made for an interesting study. Choosing which teams those are is clearly a subjective process so for the purpose of consistency, the teams listed below were chosen based on the final spot in the AP poll.

Here are some notable takeaways:

  • Eight teams ended with bowl victories, but two occurred after the coach left.
  • Seven teams started unranked, but only one finished out of the polls.
  • Half of the coaches did it at their current school, four of which occurred in 2013.
  • Six teams appeared in the top 5 at some point and nine were in the top 15.
  • Three coaches immediately parlayed the success into their current job.
  • Only three of the teams won conference titles, none of which was in the Pac-12.
  • Two teams beat No. 1-ranked squads.
  • Four teams played in BCS bowls, and three were victorious.
We're not going attempt to rank them ourselves, but here they are in reverse order based on each team's final AP ranking:

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

Dykes' record: 9-3 (4-2, third in WAC)
Final AP rank: unranked
Highest AP rank: 19
Bowl result: no bowl
The team:
The Bulldogs finished the season as the country's highest scoring team (51.50 ppg) and top-ranked offense (577.9 ypg). They rose to No. 19 in the AP poll before losing their final two games of the season, including one against Mike MacIntyre-coached San Jose State in the season finale. Louisiana Tech was offered a spot in the Independence Bowl, but it was given away while the school unsuccessfully sought other bowl options. Dykes left for Cal after the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian parlayed his successful 2013 season into the head-coaching job at USC.
No. 11 Steve Sarkisian, Washington, 2013

Sarkisian's record: 8-4 (5-4, third in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 25
Highest AP rank: 15
Bowl result: Beat BYU in Fight Hunger Bowl (Sarkisian did not coach)
The team:
The season began with a win against then-No. 19 Boise State, and the season ended with Broncos coach Chris Petersen being hired by the Huskies. Sarkisian departed for USC prior to the bowl. After the win against Boise, Washington debuted in the rankings at No. 19 and rose four spots before a string of three straight losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

MacIntyre's record: 10-2, (5-1, second in WAC)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 21
Bowl result: Beat Bowling Green in Military Bowl (MacIntyre did not coach)
The team:
Two years after coaching San Jose State to a 1-11 record in his first season as head coach, MacIntyre's team became the first in program history to finish in the final AP poll -- although, the Spartans were unranked when MacIntyre accepted the job at Colorado. SJSU didn't beat any ranked teams, but lost just 20-17 to Stanford, which went on to win Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships. The other loss came to Utah State, which finished No. 16.

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

Graham's record: 10-4 (8-1, won Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 11
Bowl result: Lost to Texas Tech in Holiday Bowl The team: In his eighth season as an FBS head coach, Graham's most recent Arizona State team was his best. The Sun Devils began the season unranked and entered and exited the Top 25 twice before closing the regular season with a seven-game winning streak. It was ranked No. 11 when it hosted Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, but a second loss to the Cardinal kept ASU out of the Rose Bowl.

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

Riley's record: 9-4 (7-2, tied for second in Pac-10)
Final AP rank: 18
Highest AP rank: 17
Bowl result: Beat Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl
The team:
The Beavers started unranked and lost their first two games before winning eight of nine to peak at No. 17. After a 1-2 start, it beat No. 1 USC in Corvallis, but didn't immediately build off the big win. The next week the Beavers lost to Kyle Whittingham's undefeated Utah team (more later). Riley's highest spot in the polls came in 2012, when the Beavers reached No. 7 after a 6-0 start. He was a head coach in the NFL for three years and the Canadian Football League for four, where he won a pair of Grey Cups.

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

Mora's record: 10-3 (6-3, second in Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 16
Highest AP rank: 9
Bowl result: Beat Virginia Tech in Sun Bowl
The team:
The Bruins spent the entire season in the polls after starting at No. 21. They began 5-0 and rose to No. 9 before road losses to No. 13 Stanford and No. 3 Oregon. Mora's best coaching job came in the NFL in 2004 when he guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC South title and an appearance in the NFC Championship.

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

Leach's record: 11-2 (7-1, tied for first in Big 12 South)
Final AP rank: 12
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Lost to Ole Miss in Cotton Bowl
The team:
The Red Raiders started the year at No. 12 and moved up to No. 6 after an 8-0 start. They rose to No. 2 after Michael Crabtree's memorable touchdown catch secured a win vs. No. 1 Texas. After two weeks at No. 2, the Red Raiders lost to No. 5 Oklahoma in a game that propelled Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford to the Heisman Trophy. Leach arrived at WSU in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceDavid Shaw's best team at Stanford didn't win the Pac-12 title.
No. 5 Mark Helfrich, Oregon, 2013

Helfrich's record: 11-2 (7-2, tied for first in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 9
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat Texas in Alamo Bowl The team: Of all the teams on the list, none started higher than the Ducks in Helfrich's head-coaching debut at No. 3. Oregon spent eight weeks at No. 2 before losses to Stanford and Arizona in a three-game span ended any hopes of a conference or national title. The team finished ranked No. 2 in the country in both total offense (565.0 ypg) and scoring (45.5 ppg). Quarterback Marcus Mariota dealt with some late-season injury problems, but, when healthy, he was as good as any player in college football.

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

Shaw's record: 11-2 (8-1, second in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 7
Highest AP rank: 3
Bowl result: Lost to No. 3 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl The team: In three seasons as head coach, Shaw has won a pair of Pac-12 titles. But in 2011, when Oregon won the Pac-12 title, he probably had his best team. The Rose Bowl championship team the following year also finished No. 7 and has more hardware, but it didn't have Andrew Luck. Stanford started the year at No. 7, moved up to No. 3 after winning its first nine games, but then lost 53-30 at home to No. 6 Oregon. Stanford received a second consecutive BCS at-large bid, but suffered an overtime loss to No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition to Luck, 10 other players landed on 53-man NFL rosters from the team's departing class. Stanford's low ranking of No. 8 was the best among teams on this list.

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

Rodriguez's record: 11-1, (7-0 Big East champion)
Final AP rank: 5
Highest AP rank: 5 Bowl result: Beat No. 8 Georgia in Sugar Bowl The team: Freshmen QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton were the names of note for the current Arizona coach. West Virginia started the year unranked and its lone loss came to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech. It was the first of three consecutive double-digit win seasons for the Mountaineers, who were undefeated in Big East play and capped the season with a win over No. 8 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A strong case can be made that West Virginia had a better team in 2007, when Rodriguez left following the regular-season finale to become head coach at Michigan. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 (No. 1 in the coaches poll) going into Rodriguez's final game, but lost to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team in the 100th Backyard Brawl, which cost them a chance to play for the national title. They finished No. 6.

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

Petersen's record: 14-0 (8-0, WAC champions)
Final AP rank: 4
Highest AP rank: 4
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl The team: Washington's new coach has quite the résumé. Many consider Boise State's undefeated 2006 team that beat Oklahoma in that's year memorable Fiesta Bowl as the school's best, but three years later the Broncos finished 14-0 and finished a spot higher in the final AP poll. They opened the season at No. 14 and started with a win against No. 16 Oregon in Chip Kelly's first game as head coach. Boise capped the season with a win against undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The team's offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, is now the head coach and its defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, spent last season with Sarkisian at Washington and followed him to USC in the same capacity.

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

Whittingham's record: 13-0 (8-0, Mountain West champions)
Final AP rank: 2
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 Alabama in Sugar Bowl The team: In Whittingham's fourth season as head coach, the Utes finished as the nation's lone undefeated team after starting unranked. Utah opened with a win at Michigan -- Rodriguez's first game as the Wolverines' coach -- and went on to beat four teams that finished in the final AP poll, including Alabama (6), TCU (7), Oregon State (18) and BYU (25). Quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards in a convincing 31-17 win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Want to swap out one team for another or switch the order? Email me at Kyle.Bonagura@espn.com.
The countdown of Stanford's top 5 position battles continues.

One position battle will be highlighted each day this week.

No. 2: Backup quarterback

Who to watch: Evan Crower, Ryan Burns, Keller Chryst

Outlook: Incumbent Kevin Hogan still has two years of eligibility remaining, but it's worth diving into what's happening behind him on the depth chart. Stanford hasn't needed to play a backup quarterback as a result of injury since the Sun Bowl in 2009, but if it needs to in 2014, it'll be between Crower and Burns. Crower, a lefty, came in with Hogan as a part of the recruiting class in 2011 and served as the primary backup last year after Josh Nunes retired due to injury and Brett Nottingham transferred to Columbia. He appeared in four games and completed 10-of-15 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown in mop-up duty while Burns redshirted.

Burns was the No. 4-ranked pocket passer in the class of 2013 and drew glowing reviews from the coaching staff for his play on the scout team, however, despite his accolades, there's no clear path to a starting job. It's much like the situation Nottingham faced after serving as Luck's backup in 2011. Even when Hogan and Crower leave, Burns will have to contend with Chryst, a recent-signee who was every bit the caliber recruit of Burns. Stanford doesn't allow early enrollees, so that competition won't truly begin until the fall. However, because Chryst lives in Palo Alto attending spring practices and meetings wouldn't be difficult. He is expected to redshirt in 2014.

The countdown

No. 3: Center
No. 4: Safety
No. 5: Fullback
 

Pac-12 leads all-under-25 NFL team

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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Elliot Harrison of NFL.com wanted to make a list of up-and-coming NFL players, so he tapped an all-under-25 NFL team, and nine of his 26 selections played in the Pac-12.

Not only that, the conference, stereotyped as offense-first, had just as many defensive players -- four -- as offense. And his omission of Star Lotulelei, the former Utah defense tackle now starring for the Carolina Panthers, is notable because he finished fourth in the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year vote.

Further, these nine guys came from seven conference teams, so this isn't just about USC's pipeline of five-star recruits to the NFL.

Here's the Pac-12 players on his team.

Offense
QB Andrew Luck (Stanford), Indianapolis Colts
WR Keenan Allen (California), San Diego Chargers
OT Tyron Smith (USC), Dallas Cowboys
OG David DeCastro (Stanford), Pittsburgh Steelers

Defense
DT Jurrell Casey (USC), Tennessee Titans
LB Vontaze Burfict (Arizona State), Cincinnati Bengals
LB Kiko Alonso (Oregon), Buffalo Bills
CB Desmond Trufant (Washington), Atlanta Falcons

Special teams
P Johnny Hekker (Oregon State), St. Louis Rams

Of these players, only Burfict and Allen received high recruiting rankings from ESPN.com. Burfict was the nation's No. 1 inside linebacker and Allen was the nation's No. 5 "athlete." ESPN.com ranked Luck the nation's seventh-best quarterback in 2008.

Casey, DeCastro, Trufant and Alonso rated as solid to off-the-radar prospects in most recruiting rankings.

So, again, the best response when Pac-12 teams don't rate highly in recruiting rankings to shrug and move on with your day.

LOS ANGELES -- Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is not Andrew Luck. Only one man is. Hogan's not terribly flashy. He's far from perfect. His 2013 season included a few more down moments than perhaps Cardinal fans and a few college football pundits expected.

Yet he has led Stanford to a second consecutive Pac-12 championship and a chance to win two Rose Bowls in a row. He's the only quarterback in college football who has beaten Oregon twice. He probably deserves a break.

That break came on Friday from an unlikely source.

"I think [Stanford's] passing game is a little underrated," Darqueze Dennard said.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThough his stats don't always show it, Stanford signal-caller Kevin Hogan is one of the most dynamic players in college football.
Dennard is not only a cornerback for Michigan State, which Stanford will face on Wednesday in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO, he is a consensus All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back. He knows passing offenses, and he's not so sure after watching game film that Hogan and company aren't more effective than many think.

For one, just consider Hogan's efficiency. He ranks 12th among the nation's quarterbacks in ESPN.com's Total QBR advanced metric. By the conventional efficiency measure used by the NCAA, he ranks third in the Pac-12 and 17th in the nation.

Not too shabby.

Yet the negative chirping is out there. He struggled during Stanford's shocking loss at Utah and its surprisingly tight win at Oregon State. He threw two interceptions in the Cardinal's loss at USC.

"He's had his ups and downs -- no one is perfect," All-American offensive guard David Yankey said. "But I think he's done a great job mentally because even when everyone's been down on him, it's never guys in our facility. We're all behind him."

One of the reasonable jabs at Hogan is he doesn't play nearly as well on the road, the 2012 win at Oregon notwithstanding. If that was a legitimate question, however, he seemed to answer it at Arizona State during the Pac-12 championship game, when he turned in one of his most efficient performances of the season. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown, averaging a stout 15.4 yards per completion, while using his athleticism to buy time against a furious Sun Devils pass rush.

Further, he came back strong after throwing four of his nine interceptions this season in the previous three games.

"He makes a mistake and he comes back fighting full speed," coach David Shaw said after the Pac-12 title game. "That's what I love about him. We can coach him up hard and beat him up and know he's going to fight back the next week. When given the opportunity, and games are on the line in big moments against ranked teams, he shows what he's capable of."

Hogan could probably put up bigger numbers if given the opportunity. He has the size (6-foot-4, 228 pounds), arm and athleticism to match just about any quarterback out there. But Stanford's offense, as everyone knows, is run first and run second. Even Luck only ranked fifth in the conference in passing yards per game his final year on The Farm.

If the criticism has gotten to Hogan, he doesn't seem to show it. As for the middling numbers -- just 191 yards passing per game -- he claims he's not paying them any mind.

"I don't care about the stats," he said. "I know I'm not going to throw for 300 or 400 a game. If we get into the right plays, get first downs, move the chains and pick up wins, that will make me happy. That was what I was happy with. Getting 11 wins and a chance for a 12th."

Hogan said he's most proud of the improvement of the Cardinal's downfield passing game, and that can be quantified. He has dramatically improved his completion percentage on passes of 25 yards or longer -- from 30 percent in 2012 to 48.8 percent in 2013. His 11 touchdowns on passes of this distance -- with just one interception -- leads the Pac-12 and ranks third among AQ conference quarterbacks behind Baylor's Bryce Petty (13) and Clemson's Tajh Boyd (12).

So when it comes to explosive plays in the passing game, Hogan ranks with Petty and Boyd, two players who have yet to be called "game managers."

It's likely that Hogan will need to be at his most efficient for the Cardinal offense to be successful against the rugged Michigan State defense, which ranks among the nation's statistical leaders in nearly every category, including total defense and rushing defense (No. 1 in both). If Stanford can't get its power running game with Tyler Gaffney going, the ball will be in Hogan's hands. And then he'll get to deal with Dennard and company, who rank second in the nation in pass efficiency defense.

It's important to remember that Hogan is only a sophomore who took over the starting job midway through the 2012 season. Perhaps he created outsized expectations by going undefeated as the starter. While he didn't put up big numbers this fall, the clear consensus among the Cardinal coaches and players is he improved, a consensus with which Hogan concurs.

"I felt much more comfortable in the pocket and at the line of scrimmage, getting into the right plays," he said. "I was much more comfortable overall. I knew what I was doing much more than last year. I was very happy with my development."

With every receiver and tight end scheduled to return next fall, and the offense's top two rushers graduating, it's possible that Stanford will ask more of Hogan in 2014. He's probably going to throw more than 21 passes per game, as he did this season.

Even then, he won't be perfect. He won't suddenly become Luck. But he might just turn out to be pretty darn good, perhaps even good enough to get the Cardinal to the top of the Pac-12.

Like he has already done twice before.
Last year’s Stanford-Oregon game didn’t just break the mold of the rivalry’s previous three matchups. It detonated it with an ordnance of smothering defense and glacial tempo.

Stanford’s 17-14 overtime win was a stark contrast to how the previous meetings had played out since 2009 -- the first game that featured both David Shaw and Mark Helfrich on their respective sidelines.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThe trend of high-scoring Stanford-Oregon games was halted last season, as Marcus Mariota and the Ducks couldn't get on track.
No. 3 Oregon takes its nation-leading 18-game road winning streak to No. 5 Stanford Thursday night in a true clash of schematic styles. And there are lessons to be learned from some of the recent matchups -- trends and themes that paint a picture of what could transpire Thursday night.

The teams have split their past four meetings, with Stanford winning at home in 2009 and on the road in 2012. Oregon won back-to-back games in 2010 in Eugene, Ore., and 2011 in Palo Alto, Calif.

In the three games prior to last season, the winning team had scored at least 51 points and the loser had scored at least 30. The margin of victory was at least nine points. It was an annual offensive feast worthy of a league known for putting up points.

But last year’s game flipped the script as the offenses took a backseat to trench warfare, making every point a premium.

“Each game is its own entity,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who was offensive coordinator for the previous four matchups. “One big thing is our programs are a lot more similar than they are different from a number of perspectives. Their offense is different from our offense. But we’re similar in the fact of playing with heart -- playing fundamentally sound. We recruit a lot of the same people.

“But at some point it’s going to come down to our best person and their best person in space or in tight.”

Clichés become clichés for a reason. Some coach somewhere once said “big-time players make big-time plays” and everyone thought it was a profound statement at the time. Then more and more coaches started saying it and the meaning dulled. And in the case of Stanford-Oregon, it’s cliché, but true.

The past four meetings have all been defined by outstanding individual performances. Some were statistically sensational: Toby Gerhart’s 223 rushing yards and three touchdowns in 2009; LaMichael James' 257 yards and three touchdowns a year later; James again in 2011; and Zach Ertz in 2012.

Others were more understated. But regardless of the total points scored, it still comes down to players making plays.

“The biggest one is, and I hate to put it on one side of the ball because it is a complete game, but when we make the open-field tackles and don’t miss them, we have a chance,” Shaw said. “And then the two wins, the common denominator is making big plays. Toby Gerhart ripping off some big runs. Chris Owusu had a huge touchdown pass. Ryan Whalen had a huge catch to get us in the end zone. Zach Ertz last year was huge. Then Kevin Hogan's mobility. He ran for a touchdown and could escape and slide and find Zach off schedule. Defensively, we have to make those open-field tackles and line up and not be out of position.”

Thursday’s showdown is a true struggle of strength versus strength when you consider the following:

  • Oregon hasn’t scored fewer than 35 points in its past 10 games -- the last time coming in the 17-14 loss to Stanford last season.
  • Stanford hasn’t allowed more than 30 points in its past 17 games, the nation’s second-longest active streak.
  • The Ducks have won 18 straight on the road -- their last loss coming to Stanford in 2009.
  • Stanford has won 13 straight at home, its last loss in Palo Alto coming to Oregon in 2011.

There are dozens of notable sidebars to this matchup. Obviously, Stanford’s defense versus Oregon’s offense is the storyline that garners the most attention. But this is also a Heisman showcase game for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, just as it was for Andrew Luck in the 2011 loss to the Ducks. There are the recent struggles of Stanford’s offense and the inconsistencies of Hogan, who made his first career road start last year at Autzen and was lauded as one of the game’s heroes for his poise on the grand stage. There is Oregon’s defense -- so smothering and so in the shadow of the offense.

Stanford’s top priority is and always will be to stop the run. But the Ducks have also developed a dangerous downfield passing attack that wasn’t as developed last season. No Oregon wide receiver had more than 500 receiving yards last season. This season Josh Huff (703) and Bralon Addison (609) give the Ducks' offense an added dimension that Stanford will have to account for. And then there is the always-accurate Mariota, who hasn’t thrown an interception since the first half of last season's Stanford game.

Defensively, the Cardinal are very good at getting to the quarterback without having to send extra blitzers. No team in the country has more sacks over the past two years when sending four or fewer rushers at the quarterback.

“They have some guys up front that really try to control the line of scrimmage,” Mariota said. “They have done an awesome job all year of being physical. But I think our offensive line is up to the challenge. They are going to go out and play their best and we’ll do our best at executing.”

The recent past between these teams might not be entirely prologue. But history tells us that big-time players will make big-time plays -- if you'll pardon the cliché.

Oregon-Stanford: Respectful rivalry grows

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
12:00
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David Shaw Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsStanford coach David Shaw is 1-1 against Oregon and 30-5 overall.

Stanford had just torn the hearts out of Oregon and its fans inside Autzen Stadium. The Ducks' unbeaten season had ended in shocking fashion. National championship hopes had been kicked to the curb.

"It's such an honor to come into this stadium and beat a phenomenal team," the Stanford quarterback said after the victory.

A gracious, classy and perhaps rare take from a college player. But no, that was not Kevin Hogan talking about the Cardinal's 17-14 overtime upset of the Ducks in Autzen Stadium last Nov. 17 that ruined the Ducks' drive for a berth in the 2012 national title game. It was Stanford's backup quarterback, Chris Lewis, talking about the Cardinal's 49-42 win in Autzen Stadium on Oct. 20, 2001, that ruined the Ducks' drive for a berth in that season's national championship game.

Lewis' postgame quote, however, generally sums up the Oregon-Stanford series, which Thursday night again will be the Pac-12 game of the year. There appears to be little animosity and a good dose of respect between the Ducks and Cardinal, who both own road wins as underdogs against each other in the past three years.

Though they are very different institutions, playing football in very different ways and, well, dressing very differently while doing so, the rivalry between the Pac-12's top two teams in the past four seasons doesn't include much ill will compared to the rivalries between Oregon and Washington and USC and UCLA.

Perhaps it should, at least in terms of what Stanford and Oregon have taken away from each other through the years, and not just during their recent and simultaneous rise to join the nation's elite.

Nine times since 1964, Stanford has handed Oregon its first defeat of the season. Twice it was the Ducks' only defeat. Without a loss to Stanford in 1995, the Ducks would have played in a second consecutive Rose Bowl in Mike Bellotti's first season.

Oregon has returned the favor of late as Stanford became nationally relevant. The Cardinal lost just one regular-season game in both 2010 and 2011. To Oregon.

Stanford's win in Autzen Stadium last year was shocking in many ways. The Ducks had owned the Cardinal and Andrew Luck the previous two years, so much so that in advance of the 2012 season, Stanford coach David Shaw openly admitted his team had an "Oregon problem," though he reasonably noted that the entire Pac-12 shared the Ducks conundrum.

Yet, as stunning as it was to witness the Cardinal shut down the Ducks' offense last November, the 2001 game eclipsed it 20-fold in terms of sheer nuttiness.

While some of Oregon's younger fans might not remember 2001, the older ones surely slapped their foreheads upon seeing the name "Chris Lewis" again. In that contest, the unbeaten and fifth-ranked Ducks were seemingly cruising, leading 42-28 in the fourth quarter at home, with Stanford quarterback Randy Fasani knocked out of the game in the second quarter.

But things went haywire in the fourth quarter, particularly on special teams, when Stanford blocked two punts and recovered an onside kick. Still, it appeared the Ducks would prevail 42-41 when they blocked the potentially game-tying PAT.

Unfortunately for Oregon, quarterback Joey Harrington was turning in his only poor performance of the season. On third-and-1 from Oregon's 30, Harrington was hit by safety Tank Williams, and his throw was picked off by diving defensive end Marcus Hoover at the 33 (it was Harrington's second interception of the game). After Stanford scored the go-ahead TD, Harrington, who had led nine fourth-quarter comebacks in his career and was popularly known as "Captain Comeback," threw four consecutive incompletions from the Cardinal 37.

The normally straightforward Associated Press report noted that the game "had everything but aliens landing on the Autzen Stadium turf."

Oregon, one of the earliest victims of a BCS controversy, went on to finish No. 2. Bellotti showed up at the Rose Bowl, host of the BCS title game, to watch Miami stomp overmatched Nebraska, a team that was blown out in the regular-season finale by Colorado, a team the Ducks had crushed in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, there were a fair share of what-ifs from the Ducks, not unlike last year, though it's worth remembering that Miami team was one college football's all-time great squads.

Of course, things were much different for both Oregon and Stanford in 2001. Neither team had established itself as a consistent national power. In fact, both would go through significant downturns thereafter, particularly Stanford.

In 2007, both programs made inspired decisions that inspired initial befuddlement among media and fans: Bellotti hired Chip Kelly away from New Hampshire, an FCS team, to coordinate his offense, and Jim Harbaugh was plucked away from San Diego, another FCS team, by Stanford. Harbaugh brought along Shaw to coordinate his offense.

As isolated events, the Stanford-Oregon game on Oct. 20, 2001, and some buzz-less coaching hires in 2007 didn't resonate nationally. But from a long-term view, they are notable dots to connect for what has become one of the nation's best and most meaningful rivalries.

Even if the teams don't provide much cartoonish trash talk to foment the hype.
Mail+bag=mailbag. Enjoy.

Gordie in Pasadena, Calif. writes: Is Coach Sark on the hot seat? With remaining road games against UCLA and OSU, UW looks headed for a 7-win regular season. Kiffin (65%) and Tedford (59%) both had better win percentages than Sark (projected 52% by end of season) in the Pac. Mike Stoops (45%) wasn't that far off at UA. Not to mention UW getting blown out by the ducks every year. What do UW fans and boosters expect from their coach?

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAfter a hot start, Washington has struggled and some are wondering if coach Steve Sarkisian is on the hot seat now.
Kevin Gemmell: I don’t know if he’s on the hot seat yet, but some of the goodwill that was built up in the first four games is fading -- fast. Lose to Stanford on the road? Fine. It happens. Stanford is a good team. And Washington played them tough.

Losing to Oregon 45-24, meh … Oregon is Oregon. And this might be the best Oregon team in the last 10 years.

But the ASU loss was the proverbial kick in the … let’s say teeth. The Huskies were just plain bad. The defense looked like the 2011 defense. The offense looked like the 2012 offense. I don’t think ASU was really doing anything special. They were just executing and making plays. Washington wasn’t.

With five games left the Huskies could still finish with nine regular season wins, and a bowl victory would give them double digits. That would include wins over two teams ranked in the BCS top 25 in UCLA and Oregon State. That would cool things off.

Let’s assume they beat Cal and Colorado. That leaves back to back trips at UCLA and Oregon State before closing with the Apple Cup. That’s six wins with three left to play. I’m not totally sold that last week was indicative of what kind of team Washington is. It’s very possible it was just a combination of a bad week for the Huskies and an outstanding week for the Sun Devils.

But if they play like they did last week the rest of the year and finish with seven wins, then the heat really gets turned up.

Peter out West writes: Why do computers hate the Pac-12? Is it just me or is FSU's schedule soft. Like silly-soft. I know the transitive property doesn't *really* apply...but FSU's big win is Clemson. Who stinks. "But they beat GA," I can hear brainwashed people east of the mississippi saying. Please. The same GA team that just lost to Vanderbilt? The same team that eeked out a win over Tenn? Remind me again. Did Oregon beat Tenn by 20? No. Was it 30? No. Was it 40? No. It was 45. Points. 45 POINTS! "But GA beat S.Carolina," they might reply. S.Car LOST to Tenn. I realize as a Stanford fan that I'm kinda living in a glass house here with the Utes game and all...but seriously. Am I taking crazy pills, or do even the computers have East Coast bias?

Gemmell: The late German engineer Konrad Zuse is widely regarded as the father of the modern computer. Per the always accurate and trustworthy Wikipedia, he graduated from Technische Hochschule Berlin-Charlottenburg in 1935 -- the very same year Minnesota went 8-0 and was ranked No. 1 by the UP sports writers. It so happens that same year Oregon was 6-4-1, but unranked. Coincidence? Absolutely not. The fix has been in from Day 1!

I’m no engineer, but I like to think I have a gentle touch when it comes to computers. And I’ve never met one that has an opinion one way or the other. A computer is only as good as the data that goes into it. And a lot of that data is still based on perception. As David Shaw once told me, a computer never won a football game.

Oregon still has the meat of its schedule coming up -- and since you’re a Stanford fan -- the same could be said for the Cardinal. Both teams still have to play Oregon State, which is 25th. And they have to play each other. The winner will no doubt experience a nice spike in perception, computer or otherwise. The good news is one year from today, it’s a question you won’t have to worry about.

So put down the crazy pills and don’t worry about the glass house. That only applies to every other team but yours.

Brandon in Hillsboro, Ore. writes: Ok Kevin, Can you please start giving Mannion and Cooks proper due. Mannion is leading the nation in total yards and touchdowns. He's only thrown 3 INT. Yeah Mariota is good but he isn't on the same level as Mannion right now. No one is.

Gemmell: First, I reject your statement that Mariota isn’t on the same level as Mannion. Check out the latest QBR numbers. Mariota is No. 1, Mannion is No. 12.

Second, when we re-ranked the Pac-12 top 10 players at the midway point in the season, both Mannion and Cooks were in the top five. So it’s not like we’ve totally ignored them. Yes, their numbers are phenomenal. Yes, they’ve done an outstanding job holding the team together after that rough start. And yes, I want to see them do it against Stanford.

Right now Mannion is No. 2 on my Heisman ballot. I noticed someone else has him fifth. Not sure if that's Ted. But I think he deserves the recognition and so I voted accordingly.

His production can’t be denied. The Pac-12 blog has noticed. And if he’s able to put up those numbers this week against Stanford, I think the rest of the country will too.

John in Houston writes: You wrote this week it is unfair players are judge by their Heisman moments. I disagree: Heisman moments represent what makes football so great! Going back to last year, was Johnny Manziel THE best player in college football? Probably not. But it seemed that every time he stepped onto the field, there was the potential for a game-winning play. Robert Griffin III was the same way. While Andrew Luck was (and still is) very good, RG3 epitomized why football is exciting! People may forget Robert’s college statistics, but they will never forget his last second touchdown pass to Terrence Williams to beat then-#5 Oklahoma. Those kind of plays, Heisman moments, make watching football games worthwhile. Your overall point was that Marcos Mariota should and will win the Heisman. I say that he certainly won’t (and shouldn’t) if he can’t produce at least couple Heisman moments. Watching Oregon win by seven touchdowns is just boring to watch. Sorry if Duck’s fans are offended by this, but it’s true. If Oregon really wanted to win the Heisman, they would not have scheduled middle of the road SEC and ACC teams. Tennessee and UVA have been mediocre for years and the Ducks knew that when they made the schedule. Watch and see: Mariota will not win the Heisman. Not because he is not the best players, but because he didn’t make the best plays. That is college football and that is how it should be.

Gemmell: Just so we’re on the same page … you think it’s OK that the best player in college football doesn’t win the award because someone has more highlights?

If that were the case, De’Anthony Thomas should have won the Heisman two years in a row. Kodi Whitfield should be a candidate.

I won’t even get into Oregon and scheduling. I’ll let the Oregon fans straighten you out on that one.

My point wasn’t that Mariota should win the Heisman. My point is the best player should win it, be it quarterback, linebacker or offensive lineman. My point was that highlights and individual plays shouldn’t be the basis, but for a lot of voters it is, and I don’t think that’s right. The Heisman moment has been put up on such a pedestal that it takes away from the bigger picture, which is a player's total performance throughout the course of a season.

Since you brought up Luck, I’d like to re-tell a story that David Shaw told me once. He said Luck once told him that he thought the Washington game in 2011 was the best game of his career. Luck was 16 of 21 for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Pretty good numbers, but nothing that jumps off the page.

The point of the story was that Stanford rushed for a school record 446 yards, and it was Luck identifying the plays at the line of scrimmage and getting the Cardinal into the best play against that particular defense. And he was 100 percent right in every play that he called -- hence the big rushing numbers.

The point of that story is that a “Heisman Moment” should be more than a YouTube clip. Watch Luck’s Heisman campaign YouTube clip. There aren’t really any of “those” plays you are describing. Part of it is because he made it look so unbelievably easy.

But this isn’t a Luck-got-hosed response. This is a Mariota response. For the record, I think you put Mariota in any offense -- Stanford’s, Washington State’s, Arizona’s, whatever -- and he’d have equal success because he’s cut from that same type of cloth.

Watching Oregon win by seven touchdowns isn’t boring when you appreciate what the guy pulling the strings is doing. And right now Mariota is pulling all the right strings. And if he’s able to do that against UCLA, Stanford, Oregon State, etc., then he should win the Heisman, regardless of what anyone thinks of his highlights.

Keith in Teutopolis, Ill. writes: I just realized UCLA has a DB named Moreau. Has anyone written a story titled "The Island of Dr. Moreau" about him? Please tell me they have.

Gemmell: That would be Fabian Moreau, and I’m not aware of any headlines. But you get snaps for the creativity. He’s second on the team with four pass breakups, so he seems to be doing just fine on that island.

However, I think we can all agree that that was a low point for both Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. Ice-Man, we hardly knew you.

Arizona State fans everywhere write: Dear (cleansing product) bag. Good call picking Washington. Go (play a round of miniature golf with) yourself. Sincerely, Arizona State fans everywhere.

Gemmell: First, let me say that I appreciate your concern regarding my hygiene. I like to think I’m fresh, but can always feel fresher. And you know, I could use a round of mini golf. Ted picked Washington too. Maybe he can caddy for me. Sound advice from the good people in Tempe.

Yes, I picked against your team. And I was wrong … really, really wrong. I also picked you to beat Notre Dame. Where were you guys then, pray tell? Where were the “Hey Kev, thanks for the support, sorry we couldn't get it done for you” notes in my mailbag?

Great win for the Sun Devils. And if they go on to bigger and better things, this win will no doubt be viewed as a season-defining moment. But much like some of our readers last week who hail from the great state of Utah, let’s not get swelled heads over one win.

It was an impressive performance. More impressive was the run defense. I didn’t see that coming. And anyone who says they did is full of it. What trend pointed toward the Sun Devils holding Washington to minus-5 rushing yards? Consider ASU’s run defense vs. their FBS opponents this year: 231 rushing yards to Wisconsin, 240 to Stanford, 247 to USC, 145 to Notre Dame. Heck, even Colorado had 99. But minus-5 against Washington. Absolutely stunning.

So Arizona State fans everywhere, enjoy the win. But don’t forget pride comes before the fall.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go freshen up.

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