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November 7, 2012

Early look at Stanford



Stanford is showing skeptics this season that winning is conceivable even when no Luck is involved.

When former Cardinal starting quarterback Andrew Luck was taken by the Indianapolis Colts with the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft in April, many analysts predicted Stanford would experience a sharp decline this season.

When the Cardinal barely slipped past perpetual Bay Area doormat San Jose State, 20-17, in the season opener, the broadcast airwaves were filled with gleeful 'I told you so's.'

Two weeks later, however, Stanford stunned Southern Cal, 21-14, at home and the perception of the Cardinal changed dramatically. Even road losses to Washington (17-13) and Notre Dame (a controversial 20-13 setback in overtime) have done little to quell the Cardinal's momentum.

Last weekend's 48-0 dismantling of Colorado marked No. 14 Stanford's third straight win, setting up Saturday's noon (Fox) showdown with No. 11 Oregon State (7-1, 5-1) between a pair of seven-win teams with nothing less than the Pac-12 North division title (both teams must still face Oregon) and a possible berth in the Rose Bowl at stake.

But leave it to Stanford (7-2, 5-1) head coach David Shaw (18-4 in two seasons) to throw a wicked curve ball four days until the biggest game of the season for both teams.

Tuesday, Shaw (his official title is Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football) tabbed redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan as Stanford's starting quarterback, supplanting Josh Nunes under center. The 6-foot-4, 224-pound Hogan, a spread option quarterback in high school, will make his first career start against one of the finest defenses in the Pac-12.

Shaw, though, didn't wait long to name Hogan - dubbed Stanford's version of 'Tim Tebow' by one teammate - the starter after he completed 18-of-23 passes for 184 yards and ran 48 yards on seven carries in leading the Cardinal to five touchdowns in six possessions against the woeful Buffaloes, albeit against one of the worst defenses on the planet.

Shaw insisted Tuesday the decision to give Hogan a chance as the starter was the culmination of weeks of solid practice performances.

"Because he's ready," Shaw said Tuesday when asked why he was changing quarterbacks at this point of the season. "Since I came back to college football, one of the things that's not as glaring in the NFL is that there are times when a guy just gets it - relaxed, comfortable, confident, aggressive. You never know in college football when that's going to happen."

Hogan is a superior dual threat quarterback than Nunes, and his exceptional multi-dimensional skills are exactly what Shaw is looking for. Making the Stanford offense more efficient and unpredictable is one of his main objectives, even though Shaw admitted Hogan is comfortable with only about 80 percent of the playbook.

"He's shown us he can handle enough of our game plan that we won't have to change what we do," Shaw said. "We're just going to try to play to his strengths."

Once Hogan proved he was ready - and he did against Colorado - Shaw pulled the trigger, yanking the inconsistent Nunes (52.8 completion percentage; 1,643 passing yards in nine games) in favor of the more athletic and mobile redshirt freshman.

Stanford's lackluster performance on offense against lowly Washington State in Nunes' next-to-last start (256 total yards in 24-17 win) planted the seed of change and Hogan reaped the harvest this week.

"Culminating with the last two weeks of practice, Kevin has shown us a lot, and on game day he really took the bit and played extremely well," Shaw said. "Not perfectly, mind you. He's a redshirt freshman and he still has a lot to learn. But athletically, he gives us something special."

The shift towards Hogan is the latest chapter for a Stanford offense seeking to prosper in the first year without Luck, one of the best college quarterbacks in recent memory, at the controls.

The numbers tell the story of Stanford's continuing quest to reach the stratospheric numbers attained by the Cardinal's offense in the previous two seasons under Luck.

In 2011, Luck's final season as the Stanford quarterback, Stanford accumulated a staggering 489.3 yards in total offense - 278.7 yards passing and 210.6 yards rushing - and 43.2 points per game.

Not surprisingly, all the key offensive indicators have fallen this season. Through nine games, the Cardinal is averaging 373.8 yards (drop of 115.5 yards) and 29.3 points (drop of 13.9 points) per game. Both the rushing (166.6 yards) and passing (207.2 yards) numbers have plummeted as well from last season.

Yet, except for the puzzling road loss at Washington, Stanford has won all the games it was supposed to win and have already achieved bowl eligibility.

If Hogan falters in any way, the Cardinal could lean heavily on workhorse running back Stepfan Taylor, a physically tough, between-the-tackles runner that needs 318 yards to break Stanford's all-time career rushing record of 4,033 yards held by Darrin Nelson (1977-81), as well as just 53 yards for his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, which would be a first in Stanford history.

Taylor is fourth in the Pac-12 in rushing with an average of 105.2 yards per game. No other Stanford ball carrier is averaging more than 20 yards per game.

Because the Cardinal quickly overpowered Colorado, Taylor had a season-low 10 carries for 43 yards against the Buffaloes before sitting out the second half. Shaw, though, maintained he intended to give Taylor a bit of a break after he averaged 24.5 carries and 113.0 rushing yards in the first eight games.

"It was a combination of the nature of the game and the desire for us to take some of the load off of him," Shaw said. "He has been carrying the ball a lot. I don't know where he ranks across the country, but he's No. 1 in the conference for touches, and we don't run a lot of sweeps with him. It's mostly between the tackles."

Among Stanford running backs, Taylor carries the ball on 78 percent of first-down rushes and 73 percent of third-down rushes. Earlier this season, Taylor had 58 consecutive rushes without being tackled for a loss.

While Taylor's power running has sustained the Stanford offense at times, the Cardinal defense has been flat out nasty.

Stanford currently ranks No. 1 in the NCAA in rushing defense (55.6 yards per game), sacks (4.4) and tackles for loss (9.2). Stanford also has the No. 12 scoring defense (16.6 points per game) and the seventh best turnover margin (plus-1.2 per game) in the country.

In its last three games, the Cardinal has recorded three of the top 10 single-game rushing defensive performances in school history: No. 3 at Colorado (minus-21 yards), No. 4 vs. Washington State (minus-18) and tie for No. 9 at California (3).

Certainly, the rejuvenated Oregon State running game led by Storm Woods (missed the Arizona State win) and Terron Ward (emerged with 146 rushing yards in last week's win over Arizona State) faces its stiffest challenge of the season.

Nine of Stanford's last 12 opponents have been held below 100 yards rushing. As a result, Oregon State's best chance for winning the game could rest on the right arm of quarterback Cody Vaz and the soft hands of wide receivers Markus Wheaton (54 receptions for 787 yards) and Brandin Cook (50 for 906 yards).

Although the Stanford secondary is regarded as one of the weakest units on defense, some analysts speculate Stanford's close to the bottom of the barrel ranking in passing defense nationally is mainly due to opponents quickly giving up on trying to run the football against the Cardinal, and Stanford jumping out to quick leads in many of its games.


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