In most cases, the final score of a game will tell you all you need to know. In games like Saturday afternoon's contest between Stanford and Colorado, it tells you nothing.
A typical college football fan sitting on the couch watching the Alabama-LSU snooze fest or the Oregon-USC shootout on Saturday night saw "#14 Stanford 48 Colorado 0" scroll by on the bottom of the screen and probably thought one thing: "Wow, Colorado must really be awful."
While that may be true, that doesn't tell you the whole story. Not even close. Allow me to tell you the whole story.
Early on, the game was going exactly the way most Stanford games have gone this season. Colorado took the opening kick off, and quarterback Jordan Webb was immediately introduced to the fury of the Stanford defense. A quick three-and-out turned the ball over to Josh Nunes and the Stanford offense. Nunes's struggles have been thoroughly documented, but this possession was a microcosm of his season.
He dropped back to pass on first down, but had to scramble for a short gain when his receivers were covered. He completed a pass on the next play to Zach Ertz for four yards, bringing up 3rd and 2. For me, the biggest difference between last year's offense under Andrew Luck and this year's under Nunes has been third down. Last year, no matter what the distance, I expected the offense to get the first down. This year, no matter what the distance, I've expected failure.
It was no different here. Nunes lined up with just Taylor in the backfield and four receivers at the line. All four went out on identical patterns -- run three yards and turn around. Levine Toilolo had lined up next to the right tackle and had managed to find an open space in the middle of the field. Taylor slipped out of the backfield and also found open space, just a few yards to the left of Toilolo. A short pass to either would've produced a first down, but Nunes never looked at them. Instead he had locked on to Ertz, lined up in the right slot. Even though Ertz was tightly covered, Nunes tried to force the pass in to him, and it fell incomplete. Three and out.
As has become common, the Stanford defense was forced to make up for the ineptitude of the offense. Webb dropped back to pass on 3rd and 6 from his own 45 and locked on to a receiver on the right side of the field. The receiver was only marginally open, but Webb fired away, apparently unaware that safety Ed Reynolds was lurking over the middle, licking his chops.
"They just made a call where I was the free guy and it was triple coverage," explained Reynolds after the game. "Just from film, you can tell what kind of combinations they run, and I just read the quarterback's eyes. As long as I'm doing my job and reading the quarterback's eyes and breaking when I need to break... the ball's going to hit you right straight in the face, and that's exactly what I did that time."
Reynolds snared the pass just on the Stanford side of midfield, and before he had taken two or three strides I was off the couch screaming for him to take it to the house. On the sideline Coach David Shaw was already calling for the PAT unit. Reynolds scored untouched thanks to a finishing block on the quarterback by Chase Thomas, and the Cardinal had a 7-0 lead. This marked the fifth straight week the defense had scored a touchdown, and it was the third pick-six for Reynolds and fourth interception overall, essentially clinching him a spot on the All-Pac-12 team.
Pushed immediately back out onto the field, the Stanford defense managed to come up with two three-and-outs on a single drive. After they held on 3rd and 8 and forced a punt, a holding call on Wayne Lyons during the punt gave the Buffs a first down. No worries, though. Two Jarek Lancaster sacks and a zero gain on third down forced another punt, and this time it stuck.
Nunes was able to manage a first down on the ensuing possession, but he followed that up almost immediately with an interception that was dropped, and the Cardinal ended up punting. In two drives under Nunes, the offense had managed 21 yards in nine plays. We didn't know it then, but that would be the end of the Nunes Era.
As frustrating as the offense had been over the first seven games, the defense had been an absolute joy to watch. There are many reasons why this unit has been so successful, and most would probably point to the senior leadership provided by Chase Thomas, who eschewed the NFL draft in favor of another year on the Farm, and Shayne Skov, who has returned from injury and suspension to be just as dominant as he was as a sophomore. Also, there's the emergence of fellow linebackers A.J. Tarpley, Jarek Lancaster, and Trent Murphy.
But there's something else going on. Stanford's last three recruiting classes have been phenomenal, and the dividends are starting to pay off on the defensive side of the ball. Five true sophomores and two true freshmen appeared on the Cardinal's two-deep depth chart for Saturday; while most of those seven made an impact on the game, it was freshman cornerback Alex Carter who introduced himself to the Buffaloes first.
Webb dropped back on first down from his own 42 and found tight end Nick Kasa in the left flat with a pass. A split second after Kasa made the catch, Carter flew in like a missle to make the tackle. On paper it would seem to be a mismatch, the 6-0, 200-pound freshman cornerback going up against the 6-6, 260-pound senior tight end, but that isn't how it played out on the field. Carter lowered his shoulder and launched into Kasa with a textbook tackle, crumpling the tight end and popping the ball up into the air for Tarpley to recover. It was a punishing hit and a preview of what we'll get to watch for the next three years.
Continuing the youth movement, Shaw sent in the Hogan Package as the Cardinal took over at the Colorado 40. The first play was a Hogan run up the middle for seven yards. A nice gain, but nothing we haven't seen before. The next play, though, signaled that we were in for something new. Hogan took the snap, faked the handoff to the tailback, then looked out to his right where fullback Ryan Hewitt was sprinting into the flat. Hogan hit him with an easy toss that went for seven yards and a first down.
Spider 3 Y Banana. I don't know if I've ever been more excited to see a pass to a fullback.
And if that glimpse of the 2011 offense wasn't enough, we got more on the very next play as Stepfan Taylor took a handoff, ran untouched through a gaping hole on the right side of the line, then coasted the rest of the way for a 26-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Plays like that had been commonplace from '09 to '11, but few and far between in 2012. Was it just because of the person handing off the ball?
There was a bigger question, though. Shaw had only promised a certain number of plays from Hogan. After watching him lead back-to-back touchdown drives, was there any way Shaw could go back to Nunes?
The Colorado offense then made brief appearance for what would be the first of five straight three-and-outs, and we then we had our answer. Hogan came back out on the field. The interesting thing about the Hogan experiment wasn't just what Hogan did with the ball. He seemed to inspire everyone around him, coaching staff included. After Hogan completed an easy throw to Ertz to convert a 3rd and 7, then hit Hewitt on the next play for eleven more, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton opened the playbook a bit.
Hogan came off the field, running back Anthony Wilkerson stood behind center in the Sequoia formation, and Taylor split out wide to the left. Wilkerson called Taylor into motion, took the snap, and handed the ball to Taylor on what looked to be a jet sweep. But wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson came streaking across from the right side and took a toss from Taylor. The reverse worked perfectly as Taylor swept around the left edge and down the sideline. Things got bottled up a bit near the goal line, so Patterson -- a hurdler on the Stanford track team -- simply leapt over a pile of bodies and extended the ball over the pylon before landing out of bounds. It was an incredible play, but the officials ruled him out two yards short of the goal line.
It was the wrong call, but it didn't really matter. Three plays later Remound Wright trucked the ball across the line for a 21-0 Stanford lead.
As eager as Stanford fans have been for a change at quarterback, most were pining for Brett Nottingham. Hogan had looked like a nice change of pace over the previous few games, but there were questions about his throwing ability. He erased those questions on this drive, but first he gave us a glimpse of his game-changing athleticism as he scrambled twenty yards down the sideline to convert a 3rd and 9 early in the drive.
Two plays later he noticed the 6'8" Levine Toilolo deep down the field in single coverage. We've seen the jump ball to the Big Man any number of times this year, but Nunes never seemed to get the ball in the right place. This pass from Hogan was right on Toilolo's hands, and it went for an easy 32-yard gain. When the Cardinal arrived at 1st and goal from the one-yard line, again we saw something from the past. Hogan faked the handoff, rolled to his left a bit, then lofted a gentle pass into the waiting arms of an uncovered Zach Ertz for a 28-0 lead.
The following possession saw Hogan lead his Heroes on their fourth straight touchdown drive, this one culminating with a two-yard plunge from Taylor, and the lead was 35-0. Penalties derailed Stanford's first drive of the second half, but Jordan Williamson made sure they still came away with points as he hit a 31-yard field goal to run the lead up to 38.
After another Colorado three-and-out (more on the Stanford defense in just a second), Hogan came back out for another methodical drive, throwing four passes for four first downs, the last a touchdown on a beautiful 19-yard strike to Toilolo. 45-0.
Lost in the Hogan euphoria -- and trust me, it was euphoria -- was another scintillating performance by the Stanford defense. Let me hit you with some numbers:
- In 12 possessions, the Buffaloes ran 44 plays for 76 total yards. If we disregard their kneel down at the end of the first half, that averages out to 3.9 plays and 7 yards per possession.
- Stanford yielded only six first downs, but two of those were on penalties. Colorado earned its first first down with more than ten minutes left in the first quarter, then didn't move the chains on their own until 1:18 remained in the third quarter. Two hours and twenty-two minutes later.
- After posting the shutout, the defense is now yielding just 16.6 points per game, good for 12th in the nation.
- Stanford sacked Colorado quarterbacks seven times, bringing their per game average up to 4.2, which is 2nd in the nation.
- Stanford held its opponent to negative yards rushing for the second straight week, and their opponents are averaging just 55.9 yards per game on the ground. This is #1 in the nation.
The final score was 48-0, but this game was about Kevin Hogan, plain and simple. His performance wasn't simply a revelation, it altered the entire outlook for the rest of the season. Under Nunes, the offense had fossilized. With Hogan under center, however, everything has changed. We've known about his running ability, but on Saturday he showed that he is a complete quarterback. He hit receivers downfield, he found them in the flat, and -- most importantly -- he delivered the ball where they could catch it and turn upfield. We almost never saw that from Nunes. Also, he showed that he can make all the plays necessary to run the Stanford offense. We saw him throw out patterns to the far side of the field with enough zip to hit his target. We saw him throw the ball on the run while going to the right and the left, and he didn't panic in the pocket. His final line tells you everything you need to know: 18 for 23 for 184 yards and two touchdowns; 7 carries for 48 yards.
We have found our quarterback. End of discussion.
It's tempting to look back and wonder what might've happened if Hogan had been playing against Washington or Notre Dame, but there's not much sense in that. We can't really have that discussion without knowing how ready he was to play back then. So instead of worrying about what might have been, I encourage you to think about what's yet to be, not just for the rest of this season but beyond.
It's been ten months since I've been this excited about Stanford football. I can't wait to see what happens next.