He fumbled away the snap not once in the final minutes but twice, on consecutive possessions. And if it was anyone but Kevin Hogan, a Stanford fan might have screamed loud enough to be heard in Arizona, where the Cardinal won’t be playing in the national title game now, or in New York, where Christian McCaffrey likely won’t be winning the Heisman Trophy next month, either.
But the fumbler indeed was Hogan, the definition of perseverance within this or any other college football program, a quarterback whose natural gifts doen’t compare to those of Andrew Luck or John Elway but whose college career won’t lag very far behind them in the final summary. Thus, the fans didn’t scream or shriek Saturday night as much as they felt rotten for him, knowing he has been through hell not only in the context of frequent injuries — a bulky knee brace requires no words — but having played last season through the anguish of his father dying from colon cancer. They love Hogan on The Farm, and they wanted no sweeter ending for him than a place in the semifinals on New Year’s Eve, followed by a national championship shortly after.
That won’t be his destiny. The two fumbles — which can happen when coach David Shaw, perhaps foolishly, allows the rotation of two centers during a critical part of a game — were not the only reason Oregon handed the Cardinal a heartbreaking 38-36 loss that wasn’t over until Hogan, battling back from the miscues, watched from his posterior as a game-tying conversion pass for Austin Hooper was tipped away by a diving Joe Walker with 10 seconds left. But the first fumble, midway through the fourth quarter, did lead to an Oregon field goal in a game in which Stanford’s defense could not stop the typical Phil Knight/Nike Invitational track meet of gamebreaking, breathtaking, ultra-athletic sprints.
And that field goal, if we do the math, was the difference in a loss that makes two for the season, thus pushing Stanford out of the No. 7 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings and out of contention for one of four spots in the final bracket. The Cardinal still can win the Pac-12 North and a place in the conference title game by beating Cal next weekend, as Shaw was quick to point out, which means the Rose Bowl is still possible. But the momentum that was pouring into Palo Alto, for this team and McCaffrey, is gone. What looked like possible greatness now looks like another nice season.
“I don’t have a comment on that,” Shaw said testily of the lost opportunity. “It was never in our hands as far as there being a (CFP selection) committee and decision-makers, and we didn’t focus on it. We’re living life in the windshield right now. That’s in our rear-view mirror. We got one game to the Pac-12 championship game, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
On a night when Oregon had the football only 17 minutes and 54 seconds yet managed a flying circus of long jackpot plays led by the now healthy quarterback, Vernon Adams, Stanford needed to outlast the explosive Ducks with smarts. It didn’t happen. The defense was trampled from the start — an early 80-yard touchdown drive, a 75-yard scoring burst by Charles Nelson, a 47-yard scoring pass from Adams to Darren Carrington, a 19-yard TD romp by Royce Freeman, a 49-yard scoring pass from Adams to Taj Griffin — and still, somehow, Hogan had the Cardinal in position to win at the end.
Until he fumbled the first time, as he was changing the play at the line of scrimmage, with starting center Graham Shuler as the snapper. And then the second time, when the Cardinals were down 38-30 and driving to tie the game. On 3rd-and-1 at the Oregon 14, Hogan had a full-house backfield — goal-line back Remound Wright flanked by 254-pound fullback Daniel Marx and 300-pound guard Brandon Fanaika — when he … dropped … the … ball … again, this time with Johnny Caspers as the short-yardage snapper.
What happened? Why two killer fumbles from a quarterback known for his savvy and cool head?
“Hard to say, hard to say,” Shaw said. “We played two centers through the course of the game. It has not been an issue. The fumbled snaps were one with one center and one with the other. So it wasn’t like it was one guy, They just didn’t — we didn’t connect on it.”
Hogan was receiving treatment on his various sore body parts and was unavailable to the media. But after the second fumble, he was a profile in purpose. When Oregon recovered, he grasped both sides of his helmet in dismay and unsnapped his chinstrap. But when the Stanford defense was making a big stop when necessary, he grabbed his helmet, threw some warmup passes and clapped his hands as he trotted onto the field, his teammates lending verbal encouragement. He missed a long pass to Michael Rector on the first play from midfield, but calmly and methodically, Hogan led the offense downfield. Aided by two Oregon penalties, including a questionable pass interference, he hit tight end Greg Taboada on a fade by the left pylon in the end zone. Now, down 38-36, the perfect ending and the continuation of a storybook season were within reach.
If not for a rude interruption. “I might have touched it a little bit,” Walker said. “Just a little finger.”
Across the hall, the losing team was devastated. “Any time you lose, it stings, it’s tough,” linebacker Kevin Anderson said. “But if you told me at the beginning of the season we’d have a chance to beat Cal to win the Pac-12 North and go to the Pac-12 championship with a chance to go to the Rose Bowl, I’d say that’s awesome. A little bit of perspective here, but it definitely stings right now.”
The shame of it all is that the pieces of a complicated puzzle were breaking Stanford’s way. No. 6 Baylor lost to Oklahoma, meaning the Cardinal would have shot up to No. 5 with a showdown against a top-four Notre Dame team coming two nights after Thanksgiving. No. 1 Clemson struggled Saturday. No. 3 Ohio State was sluggish again.
But that’s gone now. And with it went McCaffrey’s Heisman shot, contingent on this team remaining in national title contention. He now has 2,418 all-purpose yards this season after another terrific night, including 147 rushing yards and a touchdown, but he was bottled up at times by the Oregon defense. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson looks like the Heisman leader after another dominant game, accounting for 465 yards and three touchdowns. Alabama running back Derrick Henry, being hyped by the SEC media, had 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Ohio State back Ezekiel Elliott, being hyped by the Big 10 media, rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns. The Daffy for McCaffrey craze just fizzled a bit.
Blame it all, if you must, on the collapsible green porta-potty on the Oregon sideline, giving the Ducks an advantage when they had to quack. Blame it, if you must, on the absence of championship fever in Stanford Stadium, with too many empty red seats in the second half making the place look like Levi’s Stadium North. Blame it on Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren for using two centers.
But don’t blame it on Kevin Hogan.
You’d be alone in that bubble.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.