By George Chen
For the first time since the 2011 Big Game, I watched a Stanford football game from the stands instead of the press box on Saturday. Tucked in the right uppermost deck of Husky Stadium with a tiny and quiet contingent of Stanford fans, watching the game was new, strange and, above all, a nerve-racking experience. Being a fan is much harder than being a reporter.
I was rudely reminded that nothing — no matter how seemingly simple or basic — can be taken for granted when it comes to Stanford football, a huge departure from what life was like as a Cardinal fan during the final season of the Andrew Luck era. In 2011, when Stanford marched to the red zone, you expected a touchdown; when Luck aired the ball, not only was the throw accurate, but it also led his receivers open; and when Luck made his checks at the line of scrimmage, you knew the opposing defense might just as well lay down on the ground.
So on Saturday when Stanford turned the ball over three times, scored 20 points on five trips to the red zone and somehow still won, I couldn’t help imagine what my freshman self or any other Cardinal fan in 2011 would have thought. Disbelief is an understatement. What happened on Saturday and against USC three weeks ago wasn’t Stanford football.
Today, there are two variables that cause Stanford fans a high amount of stress: David Shaw’s play calling (which isn’t as bad as people claim it to be) and Kevin Hogan’s in-game decisions. On Saturday, Shaw’s play calling was sound. Hogan’s performance, though, continued to leave fans scratching their heads.
I think the reason why some Stanford fans have been somewhat disappointed in Hogan’s play is because they had such high expectations of him when he made his fanfare-filled entrance in 2012 by beating four consecutive opponents and leading his team to a Rose Bowl victory. When Hogan stood smiling (for once) on the podium to accept the 2012 Pac-12 Championship MVP trophy, fans knew that he wasn’t a perfect quarterback by any means. But they did expect that, maybe in a year or two, he could be at least three-quarters of an Andrew Luck.
That hasn’t panned out. Hogan is certainly better compared to two years ago, but he hasn’t made as big of a jump as fans had practically assumed he would.
It’s no secret that this season, the Cardinal will go as far as Hogan can take them, but how exactly can he do that? A lot of analysts harp on Hogan’s inconsistency. But, as Shaw has said repeatedly, you can’t call a quarterback inconsistent if he’s ranked second in both completion percentage and passer rating in school history. As you saw with his lost fumble and a few late and behind throws on Saturday, Hogan on average makes five mistakes per game. He needs to eliminate those errors, yes, but I think the most important thing that Hogan must do is to stop taking unnecessary gambles. In ESPN’s Pac-12 blog, an anonymous Pac-12 coach perfectly captured Hogan’s predisposition to take risks: “He’s a bit of a cowboy sometimes and will go off the reservation probably more than the coaching staff would like.”
There was perfect example of this on Saturday.
Midway through the third quarter, Hogan launched a pre-determined bomb to Ty Montgomery, a ball that had no business of being thrown, much less completed, and as a result was intercepted by Huskies cornerback Marcus Peters. Sitting next to me in the stands, a kid no older than eight years old ironically wearing a Luck jersey face-palmed himself three times and then asked his dad, “Why would Hogan throw that ball?”
Dad could only shake his head.
The kid posed a most innocent question with an answer that is as important as it is blatantly obvious: Hogan shouldn’t have thrown the ball to Montgomery, and that’s the point. If Montgomery had been matched up with a freshman corner who had looked shaky, then I wouldn’t have minded the deep shot at all. But Peters is a senior corner who is a potential first-round NFL Draft pick and had been running stride-for-stride with Montgomery on every deep route throughout the game. Stanford had been moving the ball well throughout the game, and there was no reason to make a low-percentage throw to Montgomery who was clearly well-covered. Why not hit another receiver underneath for the smarter and easier option?
Hogan’s habit of taking unnecessary risks isn’t a recent development. He gambled quite a bit in the five games he started in 2012 — fans were more forgiving because either the gambles were understandable rookie mistakes or the negative results weren’t as noticeable.
Just take the epic 2012 Oregon game as an example, when Hogan shocked the college football world by going 12-of-13 passing to start the game in Autzen Stadium. Everyone remembers his game-tying touchdown pass to Zach Ertz, but not many people remember how just a few plays before that score, he threw a pass that should have been returned by Ifo Ekpre-Olomu for a pick-six, or how earlier in the game he had thrown to Levine Toilolo in triple coverage.
Hogan doesn’t need to take gambles anymore — not with the loaded weapons he has at his disposal. On any given passing play, I don’t think that there is any defense in the country that can cover Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and the Cardinal tight ends while still having personnel to worry about the run. It’s just not possible. Someone has to be open, and Hogan needs to find that someone.
Fans have criticized Shaw for taking big game decisions out of Hogan’s hands, especially in the Rose Bowl Game. Hogan’s gambling quality may explain Shaw’s rationale, but regardless, we saw on Saturday that Shaw won’t do that anymore. After Hogan lost the ball on a run in the red zone, Shaw let Hogan run five straight times until he scored the go-ahead touchdown. Shaw has given Hogan the keys to the car because he knows that’s something that needs to be done if Stanford is to win a third straight Pac-12 title. Hogan doesn’t need to be a great quarterback. He can be a good quarterback who doesn’t make bad gambles, and still hold the Cardinal at the top of the conference.
If the Cardinal defense keeps playing the way it has been and the offense cleans up its sloppiness, Stanford can realistically beat every team on its schedule besides Oregon by double digits. But if Hogan keeps on gambling, that’s not going to happen. Stanford’s defense bailed out the team on Saturday, but relying on that masterful performance over and over again is a death sentence.
Hogan is a good quarterback, and he can find the open receiver because we’ve all seen him do it. He just needs to not throw to the receiver who’s completely draped by a future first-round NFL Draft pick.
George Chen was stuck in the depressing position of being stuck jingling his keys at Jordan Williamson alone in a sea of black-clad University of Washington fans. Stanford fans, give him some solidarity at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.