USC vs. Stanford: Underrated QBs Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan Fight for Spotlight

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USC vs. Stanford: Underrated QBs Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan Fight for Spotlight
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"This week's matchup, you're really looking at two of the Rodney Dangerfields of the conference."

Stanford head coach David Shaw may be the only person in America who thought to draw a parallel between the starting quarterbacks in Saturday's matchup of Top 15 teams (No. 14 USC vs. No. 13 Stanford) and the late stand-up comedian known for lamenting his lack of respect.

However, the analogy Shaw drew during Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference is spot-on.

In a year when the Pac-12 is being praised for its depth and quality of quarterbacks, Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler are being treated as afterthoughts to Heisman Trophy favorites such as UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon's Marcus Mariota as well as NFL draft prospect Sean Mannion of Oregon State.

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"People might say the fifth- and sixth-best quarterbacks in our conference [Hogan and Kessler] are really, really good," Shaw said. "When you watch Cody Kessler play, you say, 'Wow, he's really good.' When you watch Kevin Hogan play, you say, 'You know what? He's really good and he wins football games.'"

According to ESPN.com's Heisman Watch, neither Hogan nor Kessler is at the forefront of the highly publicized Pac-12 quarterback discussion.

That could change with the spotlight on Stanford Stadium this Saturday, and an early advantage in the conference's championship race is at stake.

Other elements of Saturday's marquee matchup might overshadow the quarterbacks. Both Stanford and USC feature top-flight defenses. As a result, the two most recent installments in the series have not exactly been quarterback battles—Stanford won the 2012 encounter 21-14, while USC took last year's contest 20-17.

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian explained how each program's style contributed to both quarterbacks getting overlooked.

"Both those guys last season...were really effective players," he said. "Their offenses weren't ones where the quarterback was just going to put up the most dynamic numbers. In this day and age of college football, some of the numbers people are putting up, that's what people tend to focus on."

 

Kessler Taking to a New Offense

Sarkisian's introduction of a hurry-up, no-huddle offense promises to boost Kessler's numbers and thus shine a more prominent light on him. He is coming off a career-best performance of 394 yards and four passing touchdowns.

"Cody played really tough, played gritty, played tough," Sarkisian said. "Really handled an offense, for his first game running a new system, really, really well. I don't think we could have asked for more out of him."

He also showed off his mobility in Sarkisian's hurry-up offense, rushing for 28 yards and scoring once on the ground.

"It's a part of our offense. We'll never ask Cody just to be a runner. That's not who we are," Sarkisian said on his conference call Sunday. "But I do believe he has enough athleticism to just make it another part of our offense that you have to defend. He has the ability to use his legs to get us out of a jam."

Indeed, that new dimension of USC's offense adds to the game film opposing defensive coordinators like Stanford's Lance Anderson must study in preparation for the Trojans.

It also makes Kessler a more dangerous individual weapon for a USC lineup already loaded with explosive playmakers.

Kessler said at Pac-12 media days that his job was getting those playmakers the ball in position to roll off big gains. Against Fresno State, the quarterback did just that.

Ten different Trojans caught passes, including six with three or more receptions. Kessler and favorite target Nelson Agholor connected for two touchdowns, while the highly anticipated debut of freshman wide receiver John "JuJu" Smith produced four catches for 123 yards.

The hurry-up offense has provided USC with a jolt that promises to make this year's matchup with Stanford more offensive than in seasons past.

Conversely, Hogan's role as the facilitator of Stanford's offense is unchanged from a season ago, when the Cardinal claimed a second straight Pac-12 Championship.

 

"Keep Going With What Works"

There is a collective pride in the Stanford program about the identity it's forged over the past seven years. The Cardinal have no intention to deviate from the formula, either.

Hogan emphasized at Pac-12 media days that Stanford's attack starts with the run.

"Keep going with what works" is how he described the philosophy.

The Cardinal offense doesn't mean Hogan is just there to get the running backs the ball, however. Rather, he's become adept at exchanging quantity for quality.

Stanford's 38-14 win over Arizona State in last December's Pac-12 Championship Game is a prime example. Hogan went 12-of-18 passing, scored on strikes of 17 and 30 yards and added 24 rushing yards for good measure.

The Cardinal's unrelenting ground attack lured in the defense for Hogan to exploit mismatches, finding wide receivers Devon Cajuste and Ty Montgomery.

That performance typified what makes Hogan a great fit for Stanford and serves as an interesting case study for a statistical gem ESPN.com's Ted Miller mined:

Afterward, I asked Shaw about Hogan's development in 2013, his first full year as starter.

"When given the opportunity and games are on the line in big moments against ranked teams, he shows what he's capable of," Shaw said.

Hogan opened 2014 with a performance similar to what he delivered in the 2013 Pac-12 Championship Game, putting together a typically efficient outing in Stanford's 45-0 Week 1 drubbing of UC Davis. He went 12-of-16 for 204 yards and scored touchdowns on one-quarter of his completions.

The Stanford passing attack added weapons in the offseason with freshman running back Christian McCaffrey and sophomore Austin Hooper becoming the pass-catching tight end that was absent from the Cardinal offense in 2013.

Montgomery reestablished himself as a dangerous, big-play threat last week with five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown reception. Big target Cajuste is back in the lineup against USC after missing the UC Davis game due to suspension.

"People are going to be amazed when they see these guys come out this season," Hogan said of the Stanford wide receiving corps.

 

The Matchup  

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In December, Shaw cited Hogan's "big arm" and "clear conscience" as setting the foundation for Hogan's high individual ceiling.

That clear conscience will be necessary Saturday against USC. In the Cardinal's loss to the Trojans last November, Hogan threw two interceptions. One ended a promising Stanford drive in the red zone.

On the other hand, Kessler played an efficient game against Stanford's ballyhooed defense last season.

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He's rarely been better in his young career than when he completed three consecutive passes, including one on fourth down, to lead the Trojans on a nine-play drive that set up kicker Andre Heidari's game-winning field goal.

USC will try to replicate that success against one of the toughest defenses in college football.

The Trojans may operate in an uptempo scheme now, but remain committed to a power style, which promises to challenge the Stanford front seven.

"They're tough to crack and get after the quarterback like we typically like to," Shaw said of the USC offensive line.

Despite starting two true freshmen (Toa Lobendahn and Damien Mama), against Fresno state, the Trojans' front five kept Kessler from being sacked.

The challenge facing USC in its effort to slow Hogan is similar. With preseason All-American left tackle Andrus Peat as its anchor, Hogan operates behind one of the most imposing offensive lines in the Pac-12—if not the nation.

Both Hogan and Kessler have an opportunity to flourish in the spotlight with this matchup. It's unlikely anyone will compare the winner to Dangerfield again after this week.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com.

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