At this point in Kevin Hogan's four-year Stanford career, the records and milestones are beginning to fall like dominos. It's appropriate, then, that he broke Andrew Luck's school record for wins as a starting quarterback in Boulder, Colorado. It was in Boulder three years ago that Hogan burst onto the scene and claimed the quarterback job in Stanford's 48-0 win over Colorado. He didn't start that game, so that victory isn't counted in his total, but he's started and won 32 games since then, the most recent coming on Saturday.
The game started in typical Stanford fashion, with the Cardinal offense introducing the Buffaloes to their ground and astound offense. Starting at the 19, Hogan orchestrated an 81-yard drive that defined offensive diversity. Christian McCaffrey ran through a massive hole for nine yards on the first play of the series, Hogan hit freshman Trenton Irwin for 20 yards a few plays later, McCaffrey converted a 4th and 1, and the offense generally did whatever it wanted as it marched down the field. Hogan completed passes to four different receivers (Irwin, Austin Hooper, Michael Rector, and Bryce Love), and three different runners (McCaffrey, Remound Wright, and Barry Sanders) carried the ball, four if you count Hogan. With the Vulture circling, McCaffrey's final carry of the drive fell inches short of the goal line, so Wright trotted in to finish it with a one-yard score to give Stanford the early lead at 7-0.
That Stanford drive burned 7:11 off the game clock. This is always a critical stat for the Cardinal, but perhaps more so today, considering Colorado ran off a near-record 114 plays last week against UCLA. The Buffaloes showed their quick-strike offense in their first shot, getting bigger chunks of yardage than Stanford fans would've liked: 8 yards from tailback Donovan Lee, 11 on a run by Patrick Carr, 15 on a scramble from quarterback Sefo Liufau, and 36 on a pass to Nelson Spruce. (Spruce holds the Pac-12 career receptions record, but the Cardinal defense would hold him to just five catches on the day. This was his first; his last would come on the second play of the third quarter.)
Spruce's grab gave Colorado a 1st and goal from the Stanford 4, and Donovan Lee powered it in from there to tie the score at seven. Was there concern at this point? Or when Stanford's ensuing possession ended with a punt from the Colorado 37? Certainly not.
Colorado's final possession of the first quarter resulted in a three and out, giving the ball back to Stanford at its own 38. On 3rd and 3, Hogan scrambled for 20 yards to the Colorado 35, but after a two-yard loss on first down, a delay of game penalty before second down, and a one-yard sack after that, the Cardinal faced 3rd and 18 from the 43. A stop here would've given the Buffaloes some momentum -- or at least something positive -- but it wasn't to be. Earlier in the season the call would've been a run up the middle, or maybe a screen if David Shaw was feeling frisky, but that hasn't been the case lately. On this play Michael Rector was lined up wide to the left and simply ran past his defender. He was shoulder-to-shoulder at the twenty, but Rector was simply too fast, and Hogan's pass was simply too good. His perfectly placed spiral dropped into Rector's hands at the five, and the Cardinal had a 14-7 lead.
The Buffs mounted a nice drive in response, but when it ended with a missed 37-yard field goal, it felt like things were slipping away for them. Things would slip even farther away when the Stanford offense came back out on the field and got right back to doing Stanford things. On 2nd and 7 from the Stanford 23, McCaffrey took a handoff from Hogan and started patiently working his way to the right, waiting for his blockers to open up a hole. When the hole opened, McCaffrey was at top speed in the blink of an eye, and suddenly he was sprinting down the right sideline for a forty-yard gain to the Colorado 37.
It was a play that highlighted not just the greatness of McCaffrey, but his improvement since last season. This year he has the confidence to be patient, a quality which makes him the best player in football. (Do you doubt that statement? There's more evidence to come.)
The drive continued with methodical precision. Hogan completed all four of his passes and converted a 3rd and 5 with a seven-yard scramble, but the Cardinal eventually fell into a 4th and 2 at the Colorado 6. There would've been no shame in taking the three points, but Shaw sent the short yardage offense out onto the field to get the first down. They lined up in the Axe formation, with seven large men on the line scrimmage, two large men immediately behind Hogan, and Remound Wright at the point of the reversed wishbone. We've seen this play a million times, and the Colorado defense probably saw it dozens of times during film study this week. Hogan always hands the ball to Wright, and Wright almost always scores.
Knowing this, the Buff defenders completely sold out for the run. Could you blame them? The only problem was that tight end Dalton Schultz had lined up on the end of that wall of humanity, and he easily slipped past the defenders, all of whom were biting on Hogan's play fake to Wright. When Hogan turned back towards the end zone, he saw only Schultz. It was one of the easiest passes of Hogan's career, and Stanford had a 21-7 lead.
If I were to rank the most beautiful moments of my life, the list would look like this:
- My wedding day.
- The births of my children. (Three-way tie.)
- This play.
When the Stanford offense does things like this -- pounding with authority and then astounding with creativity -- it's hard to imagine any defense in America giving them much trouble. Sure, the folks in SEC territory would probably laugh at a statement like that, but Hogan and company could be lining up against an SEC defense on New Year's Eve, and then they'll understand.
With only 1:43 to play in the half, Colorado could have been forgiven for running the ball a few times and heading into the locker room to regroup and lick their wounds, but the thought of scoring a touchdown here and taking the second half kickoff with an opportunity to tie the game was just too much. Quarterback Sefo Liufau picked up a first down with two quick completions, but his next two passes missed their targets. The first was simply an incompletion, but the second pass sailed well over the head of his intended receiver and into the arms of safety Dallas Lloyd.
It was the worst-case scenario for the Buffaloes. Stanford had the ball at their own 43 with 1:09 left in the half, and suddenly they had their boot on Colorado's neck. Twenty-one yards from McCaffrey on a catch and a run pushed the ball into Buffalo territory, but the play of the drive came two plays after that. On first down at the 26, Hogan dropped back and looked towards Austin Hooper. He threw an absolute laser to the pylon in a spot that only Hooper could reach. The big tight end went up and made the grab before falling out of bounds at the one. Three plays later with only seconds left on the clock, Hogan skipped into the end zone for his third rushing touchdown in two weeks, and the Cardinal had a 28-7 halftime lead.
The Buffs were able to score on their opening drive of the half, but it was only a field goal to cut the lead to 28-10, and any warm feelings those three points produced were chilled almost immediately. The tricky Buffs tried an onside kick after that score -- not a bad idea, actually -- but Rollin Stallworth recovered it for the Cardinal at the Colorado 47, putting the flatlining Buffalo defense in a precarious position. Perhaps sensing that the end was near, even this early in the second half, Shaw reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a reverse to Bryce Love. After sprinting into the backfield and taking the handoff from Hogan, Love was forced back inside and the play looked to be dead. But Love made one defender miss and then turned on the afterburners. The play was over as soon as he cleared the line of scrimmage; forty-seven yards later he was celebrating in the end zone. Stanford 35, Colorado 10.
The Colorado offense wasn't able to do much more after this, and it was unfortunate. A three and out gave the ball back to the Cardinal fairly quickly, but Hogan gave it back after just four plays when he threw an interception that Tedric Thomas returned 71 yards to the Stanford 3. A short loss followed by two incompletions brought up 4th and goal from the 5, but Colorado had little choice but to go for it, down by 25 points. It didn't work out. Sefo Liufau had absorbed too many hits throughout the morning and early afternoon, and his fourth-down incompletion would be his final play of the game.
Even with 6:12 to play in the third quarter, the game was over at this point, but this drive was interesting because it provided another bullet point on Christian McCaffrey's Heisman résumé. He carried the ball on the first three snaps of the drive, rushing for eight, four, and nine yards, but the highlight moment came several plays later on 1st and 10 from the Colorado 28. Lined up in the backfield behind Hogan, McCaffrey took a pitch and rolled to the right along with a bevy of blockers, just as he had several times earlier in the game. This time, though, he cocked his throwing arm, flicked the ball off his back foot, and floated a perfect pass to Hooper for a 28-yard touchdown. Just because he's Christian McCaffrey and the world is his playground.
That was the first play of the fourth quarter and the last play for most of Stanford's starters. With a 42-10 lead, the second- and third-stringers began flowing into the rotation, and many of the them -- especially the defenders -- made an impact. Sam Shober picked up a sack, Mike Tyler had two, and freshman safety Justin Reid snagged his first career interception in the final quarter.
Neither the victory nor the lopsided nature of the game came as a surprise, but it was still nice to get a decisive win like this in the team's final true road game of the season. From here the Cardinal heads home to close the season with games against three of its biggest rivals, Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame. A win over either the Ducks or the Bears will clinch Stanford's third Pac-12 North title and a spot in the conference championship game. Should the Cardinal win all three of those games, a conference championship would almost certainly earn a spot in the College Football Playoffs.
It will take four more Saturdays for all of that to play out, but for now the Cardinal is exactly where it wants to be. With the best overall player in America, one of the best quarterbacks in school history, and a defense that's getting better each week, Stanford stands as the best team in the Pac-12.