Rose Bowl 2014: Nation's No. 1 Defense Could Bring out the Best in Kevin Hogan

Kyle Kensing@kensing45Contributor IDecember 30, 2013

TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 07:  Quarterback Kevin Hogan #8 of the Stanford Cardinal celebrates alongside running back Jackson Cummings #23 after defeating the Arizona State Sun Devils 38-14 in the Pac 12 Championship game at Sun Devil Stadium on December 7, 2013 in Tempe, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Stanford’s offensive game plan is founded on a steady workload from running back Tyler Gaffney, but establishing the rush against the nation’s top-ranked run defense will prove especially challenging.

With or without linebacker Max Bullough, who was suspended for Wednesday’s Rose Bowl last week, Michigan State’s stingy play from its defensive front is enough to require Stanford head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren to adjust.

The Cardinal’s strategy Wednesday could start with quarterback Kevin Hogan to set up the workhorse Gaffney. The junior is playing in his second Rose Bowl, an impressive accomplishment for any quarterback.

Though he’s spending New Year’s Day playing in Pasadena, Calif., for a second straight season, Hogan’s brief career has had “peaks and valleys,” as Shaw described in the coach’s press conference on Monday.

“He’s never had a bad game,” Shaw said. “He’s been great some weeks…he’s been good some weeks. You never judge a game on one or two bad plays, which every quarterback is going to have.”

Hogan encountered one of those games with a bad play or two during Stanford’s last trip to Los Angeles, and they happened to come at inopportune times. He threw a red-zone interception in the Cardinal’s Nov. 16 loss at USC. A touchdown on the possession would have sealed a Stanford win, and perhaps been enough to earn the Cardinal a spot in the BCS Championship next week.

Still, Shaw said he’s pleased with Hogan’s direction, which the coach said “is upward,” citing changes the staff made to the game plan down the stretch of the regular season. Those tweaks were evident in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Hogan is coming into the Rose Bowl off one of those great weeks—perhaps the best of his time at Stanford. He went for 277 yards passing and another 24 rushing, and threw for a touchdown. And he did it all against the aggressive pass-rush defense of Arizona State.

The rushing yards are particularly noteworthy. Hogan isn’t used as a traditional dual-threat quarterback in Stanford’s power-based offense. Nevertheless, his ability to take off running can be an X-factor for the Cardinal.

He rolled off big gains against Oregon, as well as in both wins over Arizona State. Hogan will need to be light on his feet and quick to react to opportunities against the aggressive Michigan State pursuit.

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has confounded and frustrated one offense after another in the Spartans’ run to the Big Ten championship. Bullough is unavailable, but Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said in his press conference Monday that Darien Harris and Kyler Elsworth will handle middle linebacking duties. Neither are exactly slouches filling in for Bullough.

And while the Spartans run-stop defense commands the most attention, attacking Michigan State with the pass is no walk in the park, either. Hogan’s primary big-play weapon, junior Ty Montgomery, could draw high-level NFL draft prospect, Darqueze Dennard.

That makes the return of a fully healthy Devon Cajuste to the lineup all the more important for Stanford. Cajuste was central to Hogan’s performance against Arizona State, and the big man will again be a crucial component of Stanford’s passing offense.

Shaw said Gaffney’s performance this season “has taken a ton of pressure off” Hogan. But in the Rose Bowl, it may be Hogan who is taking Michigan State’s pressure off of Gaffney.