The subplot of the Stanford football team’s last two bouts with Oregon centered on Andrew Luck’s pursuit of the Heisman Trophy. Luck will be watching this year’s game on a flat-screen TV as the Indianapolis Colts rookie prepares for a game in New England, but the quarterback position could still play a pivotal role.
The big question as the No. 14 Cardinal (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12 Conference) travel north to take on the No. 1 Ducks (10-0, 7-0) in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday is whether coach David Shaw’s front seven can slow down Chip Kelly’s high-flying offense. But if Stanford’s defense keeps things close, the outcome could be determined by two quarterbacks who watched the action from the sideline last year: Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
Hogan will be making just his second career start when he steps onto the field in one of college football’s most hostile environments this week. The pressure is thick, but Shaw said his quarterback doesn’t appear to be phased.
“He has shown absolutely zero nervousness, anxiousness, apprehension,” he said.
The sophomore took the reins from Josh Nunes after two offensive series in Colorado on Nov. 3 and he led the Cardinal to scores on their next six possessions. Hogan followed up that performance by completing 22 of 29 passes for 254 yards (three touchdowns, two interceptions) in a 27-23 win over 15th-ranked Oregon State on Saturday.
The Cardinal would be undefeated if they’d received consistent quarterback play on the road this season. Nunes completed only 30 of 62 passes (no TDs, three INTs) in the team’s losses at Washington and Notre Dame. Both games went down to the wire and another completion or two could have changed the outcome.
But with Hogan under center the offense is running like an old car with a new engine. Hogan adds a new wrinkle with his running ability, and if he hits tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo in stride, running back Stepfan Taylor will find holes in the Ducks defense.
If the Ducks had any wrinkles in their offensive game, they’ve been ironed out by the emergence of redshirt freshman Mariota at quarterback.
“It’s mind-boggling how good he is right now,” Shaw said.
The Ducks have run all over opponents since Kelly took the helm in 2009. But with Mariota under center, Kelly can burn defenses that try to cheat up for the run.
Mariota is the nation’s most efficient passer, boasting a 177.0 quarterback rating. He’s also thrown 28 touchdown passes to just five interceptions.
“He’s definitely faster than Darron Thomas and, so far from what I’ve seen, he throws better,” Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas said.
Neither quarterback is going to win the Heisman on Saturday night, but a breakout performance could tip the scale and determine who comes out on top in the Pac-12 North Division.