Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different college signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective.
QB of the Week: Stanford’s Kevin Hogan
Typecasting — The Winner: Kevin Hogan arrived in the starting lineup fully formed, at precisely the right moment for his team. In November 2012, Stanford’s offense was in the throes of a post–Andrew Luck malaise and in desperate need of a life preserver as it approached the deep end of the Pac-12 schedule. Enter Hogan, a redshirt freshman with no significant experience, and the tide turned immediately. The Cardinal closed with six consecutive victories following Hogan’s promotion, four of them at the expense of ranked opponents, including a groundbreaking upset of no. 1 Oregon that snapped the Ducks’ three-year run as conference champs. Stanford claimed the title instead, followed by its first Rose Bowl victory in more than 40 years.
This weekend, Hogan returns to Oregon as essentially the same quarterback who pulled the rug from beneath the Ducks two years ago, but under a very different set of assumptions. Entering November 2014, Hogan is a known commodity, a fourth-year junior with 21 wins under his belt in 27 career starts, and Stanford fans are beginning to suspect they know all they’re ever going to know. Not only has Hogan’s production stagnated, but in some respects he appears to have regressed as he’s been asked to assume a greater share of the offense. Compared to 2013, Stanford’s scoring this season is down by 11 points per game in conference play and by nearly a full touchdown per game overall. Through eight games, Hogan has attempted at least 30 passes — more than he attempted in any game last year — four times. Tellingly, the Cardinal’s record in those games is 1-3, and they failed to top 14 points in any of the three losses.
Most of the blame for that backslide has fallen on a green offensive line, and occasionally on the persistence of Stanford’s old-school, run-first mentality, until the scoreboard leaves the Cardinal with no choice but to try to open things up. Even when it’s focused elsewhere, though, criticism is a reflection of Hogan’s potential to progress into the type of passer who can carry the offense. If the rest of the pieces haven’t quite fallen into place, is the same quarterback who’s taken two straight from Oregon still good enough to make it three?
At His Best: The platonic ideal of Stanford’s offense was exemplified by last year’s 26-20 romp over Oregon, which resembled an army of elephantine proportions driving another, much smaller army into the sea, 4.2 yards at a time. The Cardinal ran 66 times with a long of just 16 yards; they also converted 14 third-down attempts and amassed a 25-minute advantage in time of possession. For the season, Stanford attempted fewer passes per game than any other Pac-12 offense, keeping the ball on the ground on nearly two-thirds of its total snaps. Since-departed workhorse Tyler Gaffney was one of only two tailbacks nationally (along with Boston College’s Andre Williams) to log more carries (331, in Gaffney’s case) than his team attempted passes (311), and four of Stanford’s five starting offensive linemen were voted first- or second-team All-Pac-12 by league coaches. The preference was, and remains, to mash first and keep on mashing.
The cloud-of-dust philosophy has been a boon to Hogan’s big-play opportunities downfield, and when they do throw, the Cardinal are anything but conservative: Stanford’s top three receivers in 2013 (Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, and Michael Rector) averaged a staggering 19.7 yards per catch against defenses preoccupied with stopping the run, and the paucity of attempts didn’t stop Hogan from leading the conference in completions covering at least 30 yards.
This year, the Cardinal have also made an effort to reintegrate the tight ends into the scheme,1 and towering sophomores Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton, and Greg Taboada have been responsible for a disproportionate share of big plays. When Stanford goes with multiple tight ends in an obvious running formation, as it did on the first of Hogan’s three touchdown passes against Washington State on October 10, the defense is damned if it doesn’t overload the box against the run, and damned if it does:
Between NFL-bound targets Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo, the passing game largely revolved around the TE position in 2011 and 2012, but tight ends combined for just 10 catches in 2013, none of them by a player who remains on the 2014 depth chart.
That’s about as Stanford as it gets. In response to what was essentially a goal-line formation, all 11 Washington State defenders were within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap, and Cotton released into the secondary untouched as the Cougars scrambled to recover from their overreaction to play-action. Like his predecessor, Hogan has made a living off that dynamic — or rather, you know, made a living for coach David Shaw.
And as with Luck, it’s easy to dismiss Hogan’s ability as a runner because of his size (6-foot-4, 228 pounds) and the generic “pocket passer” label. But several times in his career, Hogan has exploited overpursuing defenses for big gains on basic zone-read plays, most recently on a 37-yard touchdown run in last weekend’s win over Oregon State. He’ll never outrun opposing safeties in the open field, but he is liable to take one out with a nasty stiff-arm.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
At His Worst: QB Curve rarely devolves into a discussion of mechanics, but my lord, Hogan’s throwing motion is truly a marvel of inefficiency. Even as a third-year starter, his default setting is a big, elongated windup that makes Tim Tebow’s infamous release look crisp by comparison. (Other handy comparisons include a windmill and a trebuchet.) Hogan is considered a viable pro prospect in 2016, meaning that (a) scouts think his motion can be fixed, or (b) they haven’t looked at him very closely beyond his NFL-ready frame.
But because the mechanics weren’t any prettier last year, they don’t explain Hogan’s regression in 2014. A better explanation is simply that he lacks the same support: With Gaffney gone and four new starters on the line, Stanford isn’t getting nearly the push on the ground that it enjoyed the last two years, and the quarterback has struggled to pick up the slack. Consider the evolution of Hogan’s role on third down alone: Last year, the Cardinal ran on third down about 52 percent of the time; this year, that number has fallen below 28 percent. Big plays are down so precipitously that the same receiving trio that averaged nearly 20 yards a pop in 2013 is currently averaging just 11.6.
Hogan doesn’t make many desperate, idiotic heaves into double coverage or throw across his body into the middle of the field, etc., but he does occasionally throw the ball directly to a defender he’s read incorrectly or simply failed to see. His second pick against Oregon State fell into that category, as the result of a zone blitz on which Hogan failed to account for linebacker Michael Doctor dropping into the passing lane:
Not surprisingly, many of Hogan’s mistakes have come in obvious passing situations, including his first interception against the Beavers (on third-and-13) and a backbreaking pick in the fourth quarter of last November’s loss to USC (on third-and-10). Without the threat of play-action, he’s increasingly likely to pose a threat to his own team.
To Saturday and Beyond: Stanford’s road-grading win over Oregon last November left such an impression that the prevailing narrative ahead of this weekend’s rematch is “Ducks meet their nemesis.” But while Oregon has more to lose in this year’s game — if the Ducks run the table, they’re almost certainly bound for a playoff slot despite their loss to Arizona on October 2 — Stanford arguably has more to prove. A three-loss team has no shot at the playoff, but another upset would put the Cardinal back in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 North. It would also fend off the growing apathy that has accompanied their fall from the polls.2
Some fan bases grow impatient or angry over a disappointing record, but Stanford fans don’t care enough about football to get worked up; they just stop showing up.
Unlike last year, the 2014 Cardinal haven’t given any indication that they’re capable of lining up foot-to-foot and imposing their will on anyone, much less a top-10 opponent on the road; in their three previous games against ranked teams (USC, Notre Dame, and Arizona State), the running game was largely dormant in defeat. Despite his win-loss record, Hogan has always been an accessory; he’s never really passed Stanford to a victory against a competent opponent without a significant contribution on the ground. If by some chance he’s been saving that card up his sleeve, this is the weekend to play it.
Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week: Kentucky’s Patrick Towles
The Reggie Collier “Athlete” All-Stars honor quarterbacks who best embody the “dual threat” ethos of their inspiration, the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.
At 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds, Patrick Towles doesn’t exactly fit the “dual threat” mold, and his career stats reinforce his statuesque reputation. But he was the only running threat Kentucky had to speak of against no. 1 Mississippi State, accounting for a career-high 121 yards3 and two touchdowns rushing in an entertaining, 45-31 loss. Before Saturday, Towles’s previous high for rushing yards against an SEC defense was 42 yards (not including sacks), in an overtime loss to Florida earlier this year; against MSU, he barreled over that mark on a single, improbable carry, covering 48 yards in the third quarter. That tied the longest run the Bulldogs have allowed this season, presumably because they were as stunned by the play call as everyone else.
Not including sacks; after sacks, Towles finished with 76 yards, which is still a career high by a fairly wide margin.
Towles also played to type, torching Mississippi State for 390 yards and touchdowns from 58 and 67 yards. As long as he’s capable of doing that on a weekly basis, he’ll get all the room to run he wants.
QB Curve Power Hour!
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
Ranking the nation’s best quarterbacks after Week 9.
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Oregon never really owned up to the severity of the knee injury that limited Mariota in the 2013 loss to Stanford, and it was difficult to discern at the time where the pain ended and the dominance of the Cardinal defense began. But Heisman voters didn’t care either way, and they won’t care what the excuse is if the Ducks go down against Stanford this weekend for the third year in a row. (Last week: 1)
2. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State. His accuracy leaves something to be desired, but Prescott is such an asset as a between-the-tackles workhorse that a dwindling completion percentage is an acceptable tradeoff. (LW: 2)
3. Jameis Winston, Florida State. The buildup for Thursday night’s trip to Louisville is subdued compared to the hype that preceded Notre Dame–FSU, but the Cardinals will take the field boasting the no. 1 defense in the nation. (LW: 3)
4. Everett Golson, Notre Dame. Golson, on the other hand, gets an opportunity to pad the stat line as thickly as he sees fit Saturday against Navy. (LW: 4)
5. Blake Sims, Alabama. The only difference right now between Blake Sims, Pleasant Surprise, and Blake Sims, Heisman Front-runner, is the fact that his last throw at Ole Miss wound up in Senquez Golson’s hands instead of O.J. Howard’s. (LW: 7)
6. Brett Hundley, UCLA. Hundley has quietly rushed for 293 yards (including sacks) and three touchdowns in UCLA’s last three games, and the Bruins have needed all of that to make up for their crumbling defense. Who gives up 500 yards to Colorado? (LW: 5)
7. Nick Marshall, Auburn. Marshall doesn’t throw enough to compete with the rest of this list statistically, but how can he not move up after completing 12 of 14 passes and accounting for four touchdowns (three rushing, one passing) in a shootout win over South Carolina? (LW: 9)
8. Bryce Petty, Baylor. Petty is hanging on here by dint of reputation alone after a string of wildly, weirdly inaccurate performances against Texas (7-of-22 passing), TCU (28-of-55), and West Virginia (16-of-36). Maybe the bye week set him straight. (LW: 8)
9. Cody Kessler, USC. Trojan fans are already souring on first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but Kessler has been as good as advertised. Even USC fans can’t complain about a 20-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, can they? (LW: NR)
10. Trevone Boykin, TCU. The weirdest part of Boykin’s ascendance into the Heisman chatter cloud is that he’s putting up outrageous numbers against Big 12 defenses despite completing just 54.6 percent of his passes in conference play. That works out to 16.3 yards per completion. (LW: NR)
Waiting: Shane Carden (East Carolina), Rakeem Cato (Marshall), Connor Cook (Michigan State), Jared Goff (California), Clint Trickett (West Virginia), Bo Wallace (Ole Miss), Jake Waters (Kansas State)