Stanford adds a new face to its search for a post-Luck spark

Washington State's Chester Su'a sacks Stanford's Josh Nunes in the Cardinal's 24-17 victory Saturday. (US Presswire)

In the spring, Stanford coach David Shaw rejected the prospect of using two quarterbacks to replace the Cardinal's outgoing legend, Andrew Luck, contending that a rotation at the most important position could disrupt the rhythm and chemistry of the entire offense. Two-thirds of the way through a sometimes disappointing regular season, it appears his stance has softened considerably.

On Tuesday, three days after watching the offense slog through an uninspiring 24-17 win over lowly Washington State, Shaw told reporters the incumbent starter, junior Josh Nunes, would begin yielding more snaps to redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan, with an eye toward the more athletic Hogan possibly taking over full-time. Per the San Francisco Chronicle:

Previously, Shaw had said Nunes was locked into the No. 1 quarterback job. Now, it appears the lock isn't as secure as it used to be.

Hogan has played in four of the past five games in a shotgun formation in which he generally runs or hands the ball to a running back on a read-option. He threw a touchdown pass off it in the Cal game, which he finished with a 13-yard keeper.

Shaw said he'll widen Hogan's role to "12 to 20 plays" because "he's earning it" both in games and practice. "Everything we've given him, he's done exceptionally well. We've put him in on critical goal-line and short-yardage plays."

Besides managing the offense well, Shaw said, "Kevin's athletic ability in space is exceptional. We want to make sure we utilize that."

If Shaw had been considering a switch before, Saturday was the anvil that broke the camel's back. Playing at home against arguably the worst team in the Pac-12, Stanford managed all of 256 yards -- more than 200 yards below Washington State's average yield through its first seven games -- on a paltry 52 plays. More than half of Nunes' 136 yards through the air came on a single play, a 70-yard bomb to Jamal Rashad-Patterson in the second quarter.

Otherwise, it was an all-too-familiar story: The Cardinal were only able to string together one sustained touchdown drive, and the decisive margin ultimately came courtesy of the defense, on a 25-yard interception return in the fourth quarter. It was the fourth time this year the Cardinal were held below 300 yards of total offense, a mark they passed in every one of Luck's 38 career starts over the previous three seasons.

Of course, by his own definition, Nunes is not Andrew Luck. It would be unfair to hold any first-year starter to the standard of a two-time Heisman finalist who went with the No. 1 pick in the draft. No quarterback in college football compares favorably at the moment to Andrew Luck. But how about the rest of the Pac-12? Among a dozen regular starters in the conference, Nunes resides among the bottom half in yards per game, yards per pass, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and pass efficiency, and ranks dead last in completion percentage despite playing in a relatively safe, ball-control system that has very little reason to go deep often even if it could. In Stanford's last six games, Nunes has completed fewer than half his passes in four of them.

The fact that Stanford is still very much in the hunt for the Pac-12 title that eluded Luck is a testament to a) The ground game, which has continued to grind out a living into the teeth of defenses with little reason to fear being beaten deep, and b) The defense, which has lived in opposing backfields: After racking up a school-record 10 sacks against Washington State, the Cardinal rank No. 1 nationally in tackles for loss and No. 2 against the run, behind only Alabama. (Including negative sack yards, Washington State finished with minus-13 yards rushing for the game, one week after Cal limped out with a grand total of three yards. Back in September, USC managed just 26 yards on 27 carries en route to one of the biggest upsets of the season.) In the Cardinal's two losses, a 17-13 stumble at Washington and a controversial 20-13 loss at Notre Dame in overtime, the defense scored the team's only touchdowns in both games.

Had the offense been able to crack the end zone even once in those games, Stanford might be among the dwindling cadre of undefeated teams hitting the November stretch with the BCS Championship Game in sight.

As it is, with a single conference loss and fellow North Division front-runners Oregon and Oregon State still to come on the November schedule, the Cardinal have a golden opportunity to right the ship with Pac-12 and BCS goals intact, beginning with this weekend's warm-up against the league's resident doormat, Colorado. After that, there is no margin for error with the division title on the line against the Beavers and Ducks, or in the regular-season finale at UCLA. If that game has any meaning at all regarding the conference championship, it will only be because Hogan's expanded role has given the offense a lift, or Nunes has risen to the new challenge.

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