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Lakshman: A major litmus test for Josh Rosen, Stanford awaits

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As Stanford prepares to take on UCLA Thursday night, the Cardinal will again find themselves in an unexpectedly familiar position: facing a quarterback green behind the ears.

With 18-year-old true freshman Josh Rosen set to take the reins under center at Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal will face another quarterback with a single-digit number of career starts. In fact, Rosen’s five starting appearances this season trumps almost all of the other quarterbacks who have taken the majority of snaps against Stanford this season.

Clayton Thorson of Northwestern and Bo Schneider of UCF (who came on early in place of the injured Justin Holman) had both never thrown a pass in a college game before taking the field against Stanford. David Shaw’s squad also faced a true freshman QB in Seth Collins (three career starts before playing Stanford) and another backup in Jerrard Randall, who made his first start against the Cardinal.

Aside from Cody Kessler and his 31 games’ worth of experience, Stanford has faced quarterbacks who combined for a total of 68 pass attempts before lining up against the Cardinal. To put that into perspective, Connor Halliday threw the ball 69 times against Stanford in last year’s matchup alone. (Mike Leach makes cherry-picking stats so easy.)

And now Rosen takes the stage at Stanford Stadium facing a unique litmus test: How will he stack up against the Cardinal defense compared to the other experienced quarterbacks Stanford has faced? We saw what a talented offensive line, an arsenal of weapons and a battle-tested quarterback in Kessler could do to Stanford in putting up 31 points, but the remaining performances have been inconsistent at best.

Thorson, even in guiding his team to a winning performance, seemed to operate in a Mr. Magoo-like fashion, stumbling into a great run and a pair of deep throws amidst dropped interceptions but, on the whole, falling short of a complete performance. Collins was electrifying in the first half and erased doubts about his arm, but he largely disappeared in the second half as the Beavers managed just 7 points in the final 30 minutes. Meanwhile, neither Randall nor Schneider finished their games as the score got out of hand.

Rosen’s debut against Stanford didn’t need any more intrigue after he enrolled in UCLA, but it just got even more fascinating. All season long, he has looked the part of the “Chosen One” quarterbacking prodigy he was hyped up to be, leading a college offense despite being just months removed from high school and delivering throws that make you weep in sheer appreciation. Rosen is, without question, one of those rare specimens when it comes to first-time quarterbacks at this level, but just how special is he? With Stanford’s impressive track record against fledgling signal callers coming into this game, we’re about to find out.

In a sport that evolves as rapidly as college football, one in which the flying wedge and Art Briles can lay claim to the same underlying legacy, the mystique of the true freshman has persisted across generations. Larry Munson’s legendary broadcast of Herschel Walker’s first touchdown — “My god, a freshman!” — wouldn’t have been out of place if it had occurred as Rosen was carving up Virginia in the season opener.

That’s why this Thursday night’s matchup not only evokes the excitement of a long-standing rivalry but also piques a different kind of curiosity, one that wonders with intense fascination just how good this Rosen kid can be. True freshmen, let alone true freshmen quarterbacks, rarely dominate college football. If Rosen can buck this trend and do what no other inexperienced quarterback has done to Stanford, the prophetic claims of his greatness might come to pass much sooner than anticipated.

Thursday night on The Farm, we’ll learn a lot more about just how good Josh Rosen — and Stanford — can be. It will be a moment with huge ramifications, not only for this season but also for the narrative arc of future episodes of Stanford–UCLA, a compelling story that just might get even more interesting.

Tell Vihan Lakshman that even the “Chosen One” won’t be able to break Jim Mora’s winless streak against Stanford and Kevin Hogan at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu