PALO ALTO, Calif. — Stanford coach David Shaw spent eight months this offseason answering questions about life after Andrew Luck. He often deflected them by focusing on the Cardinal’s strong defense and running game, or by repeating some variation of the mantra that Stanford football isn’t defined by one player.
“There is a sense amongst our team that people will want to discount us because Andrew’s not here,” Shaw said during spring practice. “Without that being our sole purpose, to prove people wrong, that’s an added thing for us which is, hey, we’re a good football team.”
The Cardinal proved us wrong, all right. Seemingly every preseason forecast predicted that USC or Oregon would emerge as the Pac-12 champion. Instead, Stanford will represent the conference in Pasadena on Jan. 1 against Big Ten champ Wisconsin.
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But in one respect, even Shaw was taken by surprise. He couldn’t foresee that the difference-maker who would push the Cardinal from a possible eight- or nine-win team to an 11-2 league champ would be a redshirt freshman who spent most of the season on the sideline.
Kevin Hogan had thrown one pass in eight games when he came in for the third series of the Cardinal’s Nov. 3 game at Colorado. Stanford was 6-2 at the time, thanks in large part to its dominant defense, but it was struggling to find an offensive rhythm. It put up just 256 yards in a 24-17 win over 2-6 Washington State the week before. At the time, the plan was for season-long starter Josh Nunes to handle the first two series against the Buffs, then let the more fleet-footed Hogan — who’d seen a handful of snaps as a Wildcat-type quarterback in previous games — play the next two. Nunes was completing just 53 percent of his passes, but coaches had stuck with him for his command of Stanford’s dense playbook.
“There was still some uncertainty [with Hogan],” said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton. “You didn’t know if he could handle a progression read. You didn’t know if on third down he had the poise to stand in the pocket and deliver an accurate pass. The one thing we knew he could do — he could run.”