Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal

Kevin Hogan isn't ready to discuss his football future, but he isn't shy about the dissatisfaction generated by Stanford's 2014 season.

"It would be a lie to say this season hasn't been disappointing," he said. "But we can only get better and move forward from here."

That's the workmanlike tone coming from the Stanford quarterback leading up the Dec. 30 Foster Farms Bowl against Maryland, the Cardinal's last chance to add some more positivity onto the end of their topsy-turvy 7-5 campaign. The peaks and valleys of this 2014 ride have been pronounced, perhaps none more so than Stanford's last time out, a 31-10 whooping over No. 8 UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinal hope Kevin Hogan's performance against UCLA carries over to the Foster Farms Bowl against Maryland.
 That commanding win encapsulated the type of play many expected -- but didn't see -- from the Cardinal over the course of the entire season. While the offense stumbled its way to a conference-worst scoring output through the year's first 11 games, that 12th one featured all-around efficiency reminiscent of the Andrew Luck era: Hogan finished 16-for-19 with a 222.4 quarterback rating, over 80 points higher than his season mark coming into the game.

"Kevin has the ability to play at the next level," coach David Shaw said. 'That UCLA game showed his ceiling."

And that's exactly where Stanford's quandary moving forward begins. After all, there were times this year when it looked like the Cardinal would be better suited moving on to another quarterback in 2015. Hogan's performances against Notre Dame (4.4 yards per attempt) and Utah (3.9 yards per attempt) were two glaring examples. Blame for Stanford's red zone woes (119th in the nation) often fell on offensive playcalling, but since that wasn't an issue when a guru like Luck was under center, Hogan took his share of heat for those shortcomings, too.

But then came the quarterback's recent torrid finish, one that saw Stanford's rushing attack finally regain at least a semblance of the consistency that Hogan had enjoyed throughout his first two years under center. And that success on the ground provided a backbone that helped No. 8 return to his comfort zone.

"Anytime you have success, you want to build on it," Hogan said. "We feel that we've gotten into a rhythm and groove with our schemes. We feel comfortable now."

And it's this comfort that's posing a triple Stanford question mark moving forward. The range of possibilities are as broad as Stanford's season was inconsistent. Will Hogan return to start under center in his fifth-year senior season? Or will the Cardinal, concerned by that earlier inconsistency, look to upgrade at quarterback in 2015? And according to Shaw, the third head of this confusing beast seems to be back on the table following Hogan's sizzling finale: Will Hogan test NFL waters following this season?

"I haven't made a decision," Hogan said. "But it's a process, and I'm going to make sure it's well thought-out for my best interest and the best interest of my family."

Amidst all the possibilities, Shaw says that he expects Hogan to be back at Stanford next year (though he "wouldn't be shocked" if he made a run at the next level), despite the NFL potential that he sees in his quarterback.

"The big thing is for him to play [the way he did against UCLA] the whole season," Shaw said. "Hopefully, he comes back and does that next year."

That thought indicates that Hogan is the current favorite to start under center for Stanford in 2015. Current back-up Evan Crower -- whose play Shaw has praised this December -- also has one year of eligibility remaining, while touted youngsters Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are both considered future options to man the ship.

And if that Hogan-Stanford partnership does last into its fourth season, Shaw has indicated that his team will work to accentuate the quarterback's strengths that shone so brightly in that sparkling UCLA performance. The first opportunity to do so will come against the Terrapins at Levi's Stadium.

"We're going to stick with what's working," Shaw said. "Kevin needs to play fast."

Hogan's calling card is his athleticism and nose for the football, and he said that an early integration of some physical play helps him lock into the type of rhythm that was on display at UCLA, when perfect early accuracy led him complete 12 straight passes out of the gate.

"It's just like anyone: A receiver would like to catch a hitch before a 50-yard go route," Hogan said. "You want to get into a rhythm with your bread and butter plays.... I'm the same way. If I can roll out or do a QB run, I'd like to get that first hit and first play out of the way. You feel like you're in the game. I appreciate those plays when they're called early, and I try to lobby for them."

So Hogan and Shaw both feel that they've discovered the ingredient to consistency, and they have one more chance to see if it can cook a delicious meal before having to deliver definitive answers regarding Stanford's offensive complexion moving forward. The grandeur of Pasadena on Jan. 1 won't be the stage this time, but it'll be an opportunity to clear up a confusing future nonetheless.

"It's disappointing not playing in a game like the Rose Bowl," Hogan said. "But it's still football nonetheless."

It's football indeed -- and an opportunity for Stanford to lay that first critical 2015 foundation.
Marcus MariotaCary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsFor Marcus Mariota, throwing an interception has been a rare occurrence the past two seasons.
EUGENE, Ore. -- In the past two seasons, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has been intercepted six times. He has attempted 758 passes.

That statistic alone is absolutely insane. Imagine that: For the number of times Mariota has targeted a young receiver or a guy in double coverage, thrown a bomb or a risky fade, only six of those times has a player who wasn’t supposed to get the ball, in fact, gotten the ball. The odds of football say he should’ve thrown far more picks during his time in an Oregon uniform. But as more fans have looked west this season to watch the Heisman winner, they’ve learned Mariota doesn’t exactly live or die by the rules of odds (or gravity, for that matter).

It’s impressive not just because of how clean he has been, but also because of how many shots he has taken at the end zone without being picked off. Other than holding the nation’s best interception-to-pass attempt ratio over the past two seasons, Mariota also holds the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in FBS. For every pick, he throws 11.5 touchdowns.

It’s a feat to intercept any quarterback, and most defensive players can remember their interceptions pretty well. But when you intercept Mariota, it sticks a little more, which we discovered when speaking with those in the elite group.

However, there was a common trend among the players when they spoke about the interception. A lot of guys said they were lucky or in the right spot, Mariota was unlucky, or he had to be baited into the interception. Nothing was a gimme.

The six players who made #SuperMariota look -- at least a little bit -- human over the past two seasons reflected on their interceptions. Quickly, it was discovered that picking off Mariota isn’t just a vague memory. Most players remember the very minute details of the play, the moment and the pick.

These are their memories:

Nov. 1, 2014 | Stanford cornerback Alex Carter

“I remember the receiver took an inside release, so I knew he was going to run an inside route. It was against Devon Allen. It was their fastest guy, so I knew he was going to run deep or a post. And then, as I was chasing after Devon, I kind of peeked -- I saw my safety over top, so I was a little bit behind -- but I looked back to see if Marcus had thrown the ball. He had thrown it, and it kind of got lost in the lights for three seconds, and then on its way down, it just kind of popped into my hands. I was pretty fortunate that he threw a bad pass.”

It was a bad pass?

“Yeah. He saw his receiver open, but he saw the safety in the middle, and I was coming from behind, so it was kind of like we had him on both sides. [Marcus] kind of underthrew his receiver a little bit. I’m just lucky I was in the right spot.”

Oct. 24, 2014 | Cal safety Stefan McClure

[+] EnlargeStefan McClure
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsCal's Stefan McClure said he could see the ire of Oregon players after he intercepted Marcus Mariota.
“I remember the defense being backed up in the red zone, and then they were just driving the ball on us. They tried to run, basically, a little switch route -- a slant and a post, the outside guy ran a slant, the inside guy ran a post -- the ball was tipped by the linebacker. It looked like it was going right to our corner, and our corner had an easy interception. He jumped for it, and he tipped it, and it went straight to me. It kind of just fell in my hands right in the end zone. So it was tipped twice and went right to me, but the corner had the clearer shot at the interception, but he didn’t catch it.”

Do you remember anything about the demeanor of Oregon players after that interception?

“They were a little surprised. They weren’t happy about it. After I caught it, one of them jumped and tried to grab the ball from me, so they were still trying to fight for it. I just remember Mariota looked disappointed and just unbuckled his chinstrap pretty mad-like. That was the main thing. The ball was tipped twice, so it wasn’t like he just threw it terribly, it was tipped twice and batted around. Those are the worst interceptions to have as a quarterback.”

Nov. 29, 2013 | Oregon State cornerback Rashaad Reynolds

“We were in a Cover 3. It was, I believe, the third or fourth quarter of the game. I think they came out, and they ran two streaks with just a fade on the outside and a seam on the inside. I was playing in the middle of both of the guys. He had one guy up the sideline, and I was kind of leaning more toward the guy in the middle of the field, but I saw the guy going up the sideline, so I kind of got a jump on it once he threw the ball.”

Do you think Mariota could’ve avoided the pick in any way?

“He probably could’ve thrown it a little further, but the way it looked -- because I kind of baited it -- I made it seem like the guy up the sideline was kind of open. I did that on purpose to bait him. But he was looking off, so he wasn’t looking at that particular guy. So once he looked that way, I just broke on the ball and got the interception.”

Nov. 29, 2013 | Oregon State cornerback Steven Nelson

“We were in a Cover 3, and I was running nub side tight end. They did a 10-yard in route, and it looked like Mariota kind of underthrew [the receiver] a little bit. I just jumped in front of it.”

Do you remember anything that happened after you made the interception?

“It was kind of a hard catch. If you watch the play, I had to reach back for the ball, and I landed on my left leg, and I tried to keep balance. And I really didn’t have time to see where I could run, so I think the nearest receiver just tackled me.”

Nov. 23, 2013 | Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright

“It was the first play of the game, and I think [they] turned out a hitch to the sideline, and the receiver kind of bobbled the ball and had fallen out of bounds. Shaquille Richardson kind of made a great play on the ball and threw it back inbounds to me, and I was by the sideline and, just, I caught it and stayed in bounds.”

Do you remember anything that happened after you made the interception?

“I should’ve scored a touchdown, but I tripped.”

Nov. 23, 2013 | Arizona cornerback Shaquille Richardson

“My interception was toward the end of the game. … From film study and how the game had been going, I knew what play they were running, which was a double post around the 20-yard line, which is a common route combination. So I only played that route, and my front seven had a lot of pressure on the play and forced Mariota to scramble. I was [guessing] because you knew he would just run if I covered my man, so I waited a split-second and baited him to throw it, and when he did, I already [knew] what would happen so I finished the route for the receiver. I think his name was Lowe. If it was not for Mariota’s athletic ability and speed, he wouldn't have cut me off on my way to the end zone.”

Another wild week in Pac-12 

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The Pac-12 and the West region are capable of producing some wild weeks during the lead-up to signing day, with so many prospects in the area waiting until that day to make their commitment and rivals going after so many of the same prospects.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 19, 2014
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

All week we've been bringing you the All-America honors as they rolled in.

In total, 14 Pac-12 players were named to a first-team All-America squad. Of those 14, Marcus Mariota, Scooby Wright and Hau'oli Kikaha were unanimous selections. Two other players -- Tom Hackett and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- were consensus selections appearing on at least three of the five recognized teams.

This is the eighth straight year the Pac-12 has had a unanimous selection and the first time since 2005 it's had three in one year (Reggie Bush, Dwayne Jarrett, Maurice Drew). The five recognized teams are the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, The Sporting News and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

Here's the final tally among the big five:

Offense
  • QB, Marcus Mariota, Oregon, Jr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • OL, Jake Fisher, Oregon, Sr., FWAA
  • OL, Hroniss Grasu, Oregon, Sr., SN
  • OL, Andrus Peat, Stanford, Jr., SN
  • AP, Shaq Thompson, Washington, Jr., AP
Defense
  • DL, Nate Orchard, Utah, Sr., FWAA-WC
  • DL, Danny Shelton, Washington, Jr., AP-SN
  • DL, Leonard Williams, USC, Jr., AFCA
  • LB, Eric Kendricks, UCLA, Sr., SN
  • LB, Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington, Sr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • LB, Scooby Wright III, Arizona, So., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • DB, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon, Sr., AFCA-AP-WC (consensus)
  • P, Tom Hackett, Utah, Jr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-WC (consensus)
  • PR, Kaelin Clay, Utah, Sr., SN
Game of the year?

Just before the start of bowl season, the folks at Athlon Sports wanted to look back at the chaos that was the 2014 Pac-12 regular season. We've been running our pivotal plays series all week, so be sure to check that out. But Athlon looked at the top 15 games of the season. Here's their top five.
  1. Oct 2: Arizona 31, Oregon 24
  2. Oct. 4: Arizona State 38, USC 34
  3. Sept. 6: Oregon 46, Michigan State 27
  4. Oct. 25: Utah 24, USC 21
  5. Oct. 4: Utah 30, UCLA 28

You'll note that three of their five are from Week 6. We noted last week in our Roadtrip Revisited post that every game that week was unbelievable. If you click the link, they actually rate 30 games. Fairly surprised the Cal-WSU game (also in Week 6) didn't make the top 10. To each their own.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Really great read from our friend Max Olson on the Big 12 blog about the recruitment of linebacker Malik Jefferson. Some interesting UCLA notes in there.
Welcome to the mailbag, where the holiday cheer never stops.

Tyler in Palo Alto writes: When do the bowl predictions come out? Any upsets on the horizon?

Kevin Gemmell: The Pac-12 blog will reveal its bowl game predictions with a 90-minute extravaganza show airing on The Ocho on Friday morning. Ted will spend 45 minutes screaming incoherently about Pitt while Chantel holds her FauxPelini face the entire time. Kyle, David and I will discuss the Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston storyline for about a minute, followed by another 40 minutes on Johnny Manziel and the SEC dominance. We'll close with a roundtable discussion rehashing the Ka'Deem Carey vs. Bishop Sankey debate and why Desmond Trufant wasn't on the 2012 postseason Top 25 list. It’s going to be a blast.

But in all seriousness, the picks come out Friday morning. No problem telling you I’m going full-blown homer. Of course, the league won’t go 8-0. That would be too much to expect. The conference is favored in seven of its eight games, with UCLA the only underdog right now. So if you're going with my picks, then I'm picking the Bruins in an "upset" win.

Someone will slip up. They always do. But on paper, I think the league has a chance to sweep. They say bowl games are about motivation. I see strong motivation for all eight teams in the league.


Mark in Portland writes: If Mariota leads the Ducks to their first ever championship, will he be considered one of the greatest CFB players ever? His stats are up there with the best ever, and he is the first player ever to throw for 30 TD's or more in his freshmen, sophomore and junior seasons. And winning the first ever CFB playoff would be huge and be remembered decades from now.

Kevin Gemmell: I think winning the Heisman automatically puts you in the conversation of one of the greatest college football players ever, doesn’t it? By default, you’re already considered the best player in the game for that year.

But in terms of legacy, Mariota has certainly done some special things that make him part of the discussion. As you note, winning the first ever national championship of the playoff era would resonate. Being the first-ever Oregon player to win the Heisman and the first from the region since Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962 will also stick with folks -- at least on the West Coast.

But even without a national championship, I think what he will best be remembered for are his ball-security numbers. That he has accounted for 53 touchdowns while turning it over just five times is remarkable. Right now, his personal TD-to-turnover margin is plus-48. Only Tim Tebow in 2007 had a better one in the past decade. And chances are Mariota will break that record, too, if he takes care of the ball in the next (two?) game(s).

You also have to look at the fact that of his 372 passes this season, only two have been intercepted. If that percentage holds, it will break the single-season FBS record of quarterbacks with a minimum of 350 attempts.

I think with the numbers and the Heisman, he’s already worked his way into the discussion. Adding a national championship (assuming he has a pair of monster games) would, in my mind, solidify him in the top dozen or so. Time will have to do the rest of the work.


Shonti in Miami writes: Realistically, how does Oregon match up with Florida State in the Rose Bowl? FSU fans seem to be really confident, and although they played many very close games this year, the team has a lot of talent. I'm concerned Oregon's offense could struggle against FSU's athletic defensive line and big defensive backs.

Kevin Gemmell: Much has been written this season about Oregon improving its size across the line. And I think the Ducks use the tempo to their advantage.

Keep in mind, too, that the Ducks have a big back in Royce Freeman who can pound when necessary, but he also has the speed and athleticism to hit the corners. My guess is Oregon’s pace will counter-balance any size issues. Besides, it’s not like Oregon hasn’t seen big or athletic defensive lines this season (Stanford, Washington, Utah etc...).

Also, I wrote this week about Oregon’s success at turning turnovers into points. I think that is going to be a huge factor, since Florida State turns the ball over quite a bit.

Turnovers are one thing. But if you don’t do anything with them and end up punting the ball back, they aren’t much good. Oregon has been especially good at making their turnovers count. That they have scored 120 points off turnovers ... nearly 20 percent of their total points ... is huge.

If both teams stick to their trends -- FSU not taking care of the ball and Oregon capitalizing on turnovers -- I think the Ducks match up very well.

However, the news that broke yesterday that Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is out with a knee injury isn't what you want to hear heading into the postseason. He's got two interceptions and nine breakups this season, and he will certainly be missed. But I think Oregon's secondary is seasoned enough now that it will be able to marginally compensate. I don't think it's a game-changing loss, but it's certainly noteworthy.

Pac-12 bowl season: Most to prove

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Bowl season for Pac-12 contenders begins this Saturday with Utah's clash against Colorado State. How much does each conference team have to prove during this postseason opportunity? Here's our list.

1. Oregon

Every year, one of the big questions out West revolves around the Ducks' chances of finally grabbing that national championship. Oregon boasts Superman this year, and it's almost certainly Marcus Mariota's last campaign in Eugene. Though their defense suffered a major blow with the loss of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks have their man under center. They can't take this chance to win it all for granted: A playoff appearance is a golden opportunity for this powerful Oregon program to prove that it can finally bring home college football's ultimate hardware. Florida State, the defending champs, await in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual.

2. UCLA

This, likely Brett Hundley's final season in Westwood, was supposed to be year the Bruins surged from "good" to "elite." But they slipped too often, and the timing of their last fall -- a 31-10 finale loss at the hands of Stanford -- couldn't have been worse. Now, the narrative has shifted back to the old "they can't win the big one" theme, and that's the exact perception UCLA wanted to avoid. They have a chance to make a cleansing statement versus a good Kansas State squad, also 9-3, in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

3. Utah

The season started magically for the Utes -- aside from that 28-27 road bump at home against Washington State, of course. But after kicking 2014 off at 6-1, Utah dropped three of their last five games. They narrowly squeaked by Pac-12 bottom feeder Colorado to close the regular season, so it's fair to say that Kyle Whittingham's club stumbled to the finish line. An 8-4 record is nothing to scoff at, but the Utes could use a good stomping of Mountain West opponent Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. It would go a long way toward maintaining that "we've arrived as a force in the Pac-12" tone over the offseason.

4. ASU

The Sun Devils' season trajectory had some similarities with Utah's, though ASU lost one fewer game late in the season. Still, they were a one-loss team until a rough November knocked them out of the conference race. A Hyundai Sun Bowl date against fellow 9-3 competitor Duke has become ASU's consolation price, and that is quite the step down from the Rose Bowl aspirations Todd Graham's club harbored followings its November 8 win against Notre Dame. So it's important for the Sun Devils to reverse trajectory heading into the offseason, and they would also like to prove that they are better in December than last season's 37-23 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.

5. Arizona

The Wildcats were peaking at the right time ---- Oh wait, there was red-hot Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, and there were 24 yards of total offense for Arizona in the first half. Suddenly, Rich Rodriguez's club wasn't peaking at the right time. But the Wildcats can take solace in the fact that the Ducks have the ability to make good teams look foolish. They can also comfort themselves knowing that this VIZIO Fiesta Bowl is a prime chance to deliver a positive closing statement against a 10-2 Boise State team that loves that big stadium in Glendale.

6. USC

Steve Sarkisian really needed that blowout victory over Notre Dame in the finale to dump the "seven win" moniker that online trolls gleefully tossed around following the Trojans' loss to UCLA. Sark got the powerful performance he was looking for, so he's 8-4 heading into a National University Holiday Bowl matchup against Nebraska. Sure, a postseason win would be nice for the Trojans, but they are lower on this list because there is not all that much for them left to prove this season. Regardless of whether they win or lose on December 27, we know who USC is: a very talented, somewhat flawed, and ultimately thin team that's excited about getting a clean slate in 2015.

7. Stanford

There is very little the Cardinal can prove in their Foster Farms Bowl clash with Maryland on Dec. 30. Stanford capped a disappointing 7-5 regular season with a resounding 31-10 thumping of UCLA, and that performance made it very clear the Cardinal had underperformed in their games leading up to the finale. Now, David Shaw's team is a two-touchdown favorite against the Terrapins in a game 20 minutes away from campus, so there is really no chance to prove anything more than what the Cardinal already accomplished against the Bruins -- even in the case of a lopsided victory.

8. Washington

The Huskies managed eight wins in the first year of the Chris Petersen era, and they fought through some turmoil, too. The team delivered a strong finish following the dismissal of star cornerback Marcus Peters. So, the season has served as a solid foundation for Petersen to work with as he tries to assert himself in Seattle moving forward. It's hard to see the result of the TicketCity Cactus Bowl against 6-6 Oklahoma State swinging the vibe too far in either direction.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 18, 2014
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If you use more than 5 percent of your brain you don't want to be on earth.

Leading off

Another day, another round of All-America teams. Three more to catch you up on. You should know the names by now.

First up is The Sporting News:
  • First-team offense: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon; Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford; Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon;
  • First-team defense: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington; Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona; Hau’oli Kikaha, LB Washington; Erick Kendricks, LB, UCLA.
  • First-team special teams: KR Kaelin Clay, Utah.
  • Second-team offense: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State.
  • Second-team defense: Nate Orchard, DE, Utah; Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon;
  • Special teams: Tom Hackett, P, Utah.
Next up is the AFCA FBS All-America team:
  • First-team offense: Mariota
  • First-team defense: Leonard Williams, DL, USC; Wright; Kikaha; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon.
  • Specialists: Hackett
And here's the Football Writers Association of America All-America team:
  • First-team offense: Mariota, Jake Fisher, OL, Oregon
  • First-team defense: Orchard, Kikaha, Wright III,
  • Specialists: Hackett
  • Second-team defense: Williams, Kendricks

The Sporting News also named Mariota its player of the year.

Ifo out

No doubt, you've heard the news that Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, whose name appears on some All-America lists above, is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. It's not an apocalyptic blow to the Ducks. But you don't want to be facing Winston down one of your best defenders, either.

Here's some reaction: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

A couple of ASU alums are already benefiting from the new Adidas deal. All together now ... awwwwwww
Of all the Pac-12 teams going bowling this season, Stanford is the biggest favorite. The Cardinal are two-touchdown chalk over fellow 7-5 contender Maryland. It's understandable, then, that the 2014 Foster Farms Bowl may not pack a whole lot of surface-level intrigue, especially for a program coming off four consecutive BCS bowl appearances.

But when it comes to Stanford, there's a deeper layer of uncertainty here that piques the interest: In what direction is David Shaw's program heading?

On that front, a critical variable remains in limbo and data points from opposite ends of the spectrum conflict with each other.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesAmid an up-and-down season, Kevin Hogan had arguably his best game his last time out vs. UCLA.
One can argue that Stanford's tumble to five losses was the telltale sign of a decaying powerhouse. The Cardinal's stale offense finished last in Pac-12 point production, after all. The train that was the offense had wobbled on the tracks ever since Andrew Luck's departure following the 2011 season, and it completely derailed here in 2014.

But then came the eyebrow-raising 31-10 road romp at UCLA to end the season, a finish that may suggest that the winds on the Farm are blowing in a completely different direction.

"We knew we had that potential all season long," receiver Michael Rector said. "We wish it would have been a little earlier in the season when we all clicked. Better late than never, I guess."

Not late would have been better, of course.

But here the Cardinal are, churning through December bowl practices, focusing on their team's next step with an unusual mixed feeling of disappointment and shining optimism. Dispiriting seasons capped off by statement successes tend to produce such conflicting emotions.

But bowl preparation is a valuable opportunity to build for the future, and Stanford is utilizing it enthusiastically: Veteran lineman Josh Garnett voluntarily stayed after practice earlier this week to share his tricks of trade with some of the Cardinal's green linemen.

"This time is about getting the young guys ready," Garnett said. "It helps me when I can teach someone, because that means I have to master it."

The zeal and gusto of a group once known for its "Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind" -- think the Jim Harbaugh era, which is seeing its final players finish their Stanford careers this month -- isn't dead yet. Garnett and his fellow offensive linemen, criticized for soft play at critical junctures of this season, admit they were frustrated by their play in 2014. They delivered a throwback manhandling performance their last time out, and that appears to have at least temporarily given the Cardinal a second wind.

"It had gotten to the point where we had to stop talking about being the best offensive line and actually put it on tape," Garnett said. "We had to start moving people again. We had to get back to that David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, Cam Fleming, and David Yankey era of Stanford football. They taught us, and we have to teach it to the younger guys."

Of course, it's too early to tell if Stanford has permanently rediscovered the blue collar, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that had fueled their extraordinary run of BCS success earlier this decade. For all that we know right now, the UCLA success might have just marked a one-game resurgence. But there's hope for the future now that the offense has finally flexed its muscles.

"All the units got better individually, and then we put it all together collectively," Rector said. "Our quarterback might have played the best game of his career."

Ah yes, quarterback -- if Stanford hopes to sustain its offensive success moving forward, that's likely the most important variable of all. Kevin Hogan delivered a sparkling 16-for-19, 234-yard performance in that UCLA win, setting up a fascinating future decision for Shaw at this crossroads.

Hogan struggled in parts of this season, leading many observers to wonder whether or not he’d be the Cardinal’s starting quarterback again in 2015, his fifth-year senior campaign. Touted prospects Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are waiting in the wings. But Hogan's sensational performance to close the regular season prompted Shaw to hint that a run at the NFL is not out of the cards for Hogan yet. If the coach does indeed feel so strongly about his quarterback’s potential, one would think Hogan would be the favorite to start again at Stanford next season.

"I expect him to come back [next year]," Shaw said. "But I wouldn't be shocked if he left because I think he has the ability to play at the next level. I think that last game showed what his capabilities are. That's where his ceiling is. And if he plays like that for any stretch of time, I'm excited about him at the next level."

That's the confusion of this 2014 Stanford season, encapsulated in one quote. It's tough to know what to make of a quarterback -- and a team -- when their play over the course of a season resembles Dr. Jekyll on one end of the spectrum and Mr. Hyde on the other. But the uncertainty emanating from the Cardinal's play makes their next moves particularly intriguing -- even if their final game destination this season isn't as prestigious as in years past.
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as the league's bowl slate remains to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- usually unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while impacting its eccentric, memorable course.

We'll be counting down in increments of three throughout this entire week. Here's the third installment:

9. Andy Phillips game-winning FG vs. UCLA

video

A 29-yard field goal attempt is cake for Andy Phillips. But with the Utes trailing by one point with 37 seconds remaining, this wasn't exactly a stroll in the park.

The three previous plays had only managed 5 yards, all on the ground. It all resulted in a fourth-and-5 and Phillips shining moment. But, as he had done so many times already in the 2014 season (and as he would do so many more times this season), Phillips was cool and collected, nailing the 29-yarder.

Phillips' field goal didn't completely seal the game for the Utes. The Bruins were able to go 36 yards in six plays, setting up Ka'imi Fairbairn to attempt a 50-yard field goal. But it was short and the unranked Utes managed to upset then-No. 8 UCLA in Pasadena.

“I've never understood what the word 'signature win' is, but this is a big win for us on the road,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

8. Jerry Neuheisel putting the Bruins on his back in Texas

When UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley got injured on the second offensive drive for the Bruins, there was certainly a sinking feeling in Arlington. The depth behind Hundley was, well, limited and coach Jim Mora would be turning to sophomore Jerry Neuheisel, who had only attempted 13 passes total during his UCLA career.

But what Neuheisel did was nothing short of spectacular. He led the Bruin offense, completing 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Though, the crowning play -- and one that made him look like a true veteran -- was the game-winning 33-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Payton. The touchdown and ensuing PAT pulled the Bruins ahead 20-17 and the ensuing defensive series (holding the Longhorns to just 3 yards and a punt) kept No. 12 UCLA in the playoff conversation.

Neuheisel's play was also an early signifier as to how good the quarterback depth was in the Pac-12. Though we'd eventually go on to see Mike Bercovici, Luke Falk and Kendal Thompson/Travis Wilson (pick your starter and your back up), they'd all be referenced back to Neuheisel as he was kind of the starting point for the backup QB conversation after this performance against Texas.

7. Cal touchdowns against Stanford #Pac12refs

Oh, Pac-12 refs. Hell hath no furry like fans scorned. And there were several Pac-12 fan bases scorned this season. But Cal? Oh boy.

The Pac-12 announced on Nov. 25 that the officiating crew for the Stanford-Cal game made two mistakes and it cost the Bears a third-quarter touchdown. The replay crew overturned two touchdowns and the Pac-12 later decided that there was actually not enough evidence to overturn either of those calls.

A release stated that the "replay crew will be held accountable for the errors through the Conference's disciplinary process."

Just a month and a half before these unfortunate errors, NFL referee Tony Corrente resigned as the league's coordinator of football officiating. To say that it wasn't the greatest year for #Pac12refs would be an understatement. Better luck next year (because seriously, it can't get much worse).

Other defining moments:

Pac-12 morning links

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
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Because you know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass.

Leading off

A few more All-America teams were announced Tuesday, and the usual Pac-12 suspects continue to rake in the honors. Here's the latest breakdown.

First up is the Associated Press All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Shaq Thompson, AP, Washington.
  • First-team defense: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington, Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona, Hau’oli Kikaha, LB, Washington, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon, Tom Hackett, P, Utah.
  • Second-team offense: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford, Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
  • Second-team defense: Nate Orchard, DE, Utah, Leonard Williams, DT, USC, Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA
  • Third-team offense: Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon, Nelson Agholor, WR, USC.
  • Third-team defense: Su’a Cravens, S, USC.

Next up is the Sports Illustrated All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Mariota, Grasu, Peat.
  • First-team defense: Orchard, Wright III, Thompson, Kendricks, Ekpre-Olomu.
  • Second team offense: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State.
  • Second team defense: Williams, Kikaha
  • Second team special teams: Hackett

Here's the Fox Sports All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Mariota
  • First-team defense: Williams, Wright III, Kikaha, Ekpre-Olomu,
  • First-team special teams: Hackett, Kaelin Clay, KR, Utah
  • Second-team offense: Agholor
  • Second-team defense: Orchard, Shelton, Thompson, Kendricks

Also, USA Today put together its Freshman All-America team. Included on that list from the Pac-12 are:
  • Offense: Toa Lobendahn, OL, USC, Jacob Alsadek, OL, Arizona
  • Defense: Lowell Lotulelei, DL, Utah, Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC, Budda Baker, S, Washington.

Finally, Bruce Feldman of Fox breaks down the most impressive freshmen. Jackson and Baker are on his list.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

In case you missed it (and it would have been pretty hard to miss it if you follow Pac-12 football), here's the full presentation of Marcus Mariota reading the Top 10 on the "Late Show with David Letterman."

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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It was a busy weekend in the Pac-12, with commitments, offers, visits and awards touching nearly every team in the conference, including Stanford, USC and Washington reeling in big commitments and UCLA hosting impact prospects. Here is a look at some of the more impactful events of the past few days, as well as a glimpse of what this week could hold in the Pac-12.


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Pac-12 morning links

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
8:00
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Bye bye Li'l Sebastian;
Miss you in the saddest fashion.
Bye bye Li'l Sebastian;
You’re 5,000 candles in the wind.

Leading off

Where they heck have you all been on the weekends? We've been at games. What's your excuse?

According to a report by Jon Solomon of CBS Sports, attendance has been down in college football across the country. And the Pac-12 is no exception, experiencing a 2-percent drop across the board. Solomon breaks it down by conference. Here's what he had to say about the Pac-12.
Crowds dropped 2 percent to 52,758 and they are down 10 percent since peaking in 2007. Pac-12 attendance leader UCLA ranked 19th nationally. Only four of 12 conference schools had an increase: UCLA, Arizona, Utah and Washington State. A couple of schools' decreases were very minor.

Solomon has attendance numbers for all FBS schools on a chart. It's worth a look to see who is trending up and down.

Future looks bright

At ESPN, we love lists. And we know you love them too. That makes the end of the year like, well, like Christmas. Here's another list for you -- the ESPN.com True Freshman All-America team.

A trio of frosh from the Pac-12 are on the team -- including Oregon running back Royce Freeman:
Freeman started the season by beating out both junior Byron Marshall and sophomore Thomas Tyner for the starting running back spot at Oregon. He finished the regular season by leading the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns (16) and racking up 1,299 rushing yards, becoming the first Oregon freshman to have a 1,000-yard-rushing season.

Also on the list were USC offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn and USC's Adoree' Jackson.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Good one, Kyle.



Pretty sweet.

Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as the league's bowl slate remains to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- usually unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while impacting its eccentric, memorable course.

We'll be counting down in increments of three throughout this entire week. Here's the first installment:

No. 15 -- Mannion sets conference passing record

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Oregon State's season -- and Mike Riley's tenure in Corvallis -- ended in a 5-7 disappointment. That means senior quarterback Sean Mannion has reached the end of his prolific collegiate journey. But the Beaver certainly didn't exit with a whimper. Aside from setting every single career passing mark in the Oregon State record books, Mannion also etched his name into conference history. With a 15-yard fourth quarter pass to Connor Hamlett on Nov. 1 against California, Mannion surpassed USC's Matt Barkley to become the top passer in Pac-12 history.

This individual accomplishment did not alter the wild conference race in any way, but it did provide a powerful symbol of just how much talent the league has amassed in its meteoric rise, particularly at the quarterback position. Heading into 2014, there was a heavy dose of hype regarding what was anticipated to be Year of the Signal-caller in the Pac-12. Between Marcus Mariota's Heisman exploits, Connor Halliday's absurd statistical production, and the fine campaigns of players such as Brett Hundley, Cody Kessler, and Jared Goff, there was plenty to enjoy in the 2014 aerial show. Mannion is the one who grabbed the lasting career mark.

Of course, Mannion's record likely won't last forever -- Goff may have a great shot to break it if he sticks around Berkeley for a full four years -- but it was a testament to a steady, accurate, and poised Pac-12 passer in a season that featured a true gold mine of talent at the position.

No. 14 -- Wazzu missed field goal against Cal ruins Halliday's record night

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It seemed as if Halliday couldn't catch a break over the course of his tragic Washington State career, but he kept fighting until he could fight no more, and that valiant effort left him with a place in the national record book. Halliday's injury-riddled career in Pullman included a game played with a lacerated liver and finished with a gruesome leg break this season against USC. The misfortune that may best encapsulate his tough luck, though, came on Oct. 4 against Cal.

In a dizzyingly precise passing display, Halliday shredded the Bears' defense to the tune of an NCAA single-game record 734 yards. He completed 49 of his 70 passes and tossed six touchdowns without a single interception. With the Cougars trailing 60-59 as time wound down, Halliday even led his team on a 68-yard drive to the California 2-yard line. With only 19 seconds remained, Washington State was an extra point-length field goal away from winning on Halliday's historic night.

But kicker Quentin Breshears missed the 19-yard attempt, and Halliday looked on in dazed, losing disbelief on the night during which he had made history. Football can be a cruel sport, and Halliday got a particularly vicious dose of it. This was a truly stunning dichotomy. Halliday was the victim of one of the Pac-12's 2014 Twilight Zone finishes -- one that featured a mind-numbing seizure of defeat from the jaws of victory.

No. 13 -- USC stuffs Stanford

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Stanford entered 2014 having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, but it didn't take long for alarms to sound on the Farm. The first disturbing exhibit of offensive decay came in Week 2, when a short-handed USC defense delivered a bend-but-don't-break performance for the ages. The Cardinal reached scoring territory (at least the Trojans' 35-yard line) on all nine of their possessions, but managed to score only 10 total points throughout all of those chances. USC won the game 13-10, delivering a psychological gut punch that Stanford's offense never fully recovered from. The Cardinal's 119th-place national finish in red zone efficiency was a primary culprit in their tumble to 7-5, and this was the game that set them firmly on that disappointing course.

The slide's seminal moment might have arrived late in the third quarter on Sept. 6. Stanford led 10-7, and they faced a fourth-and-one from the USC 3-yard line. In the championship years of the past, this is where the Cardinal had always brutally asserted their control of the proceedings.

Not this time.

Without Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, or Tyler Gaffney to hand off to, Kevin Hogan fed true freshman Daniel Marx the ball, and USC stuffed him short of the first down marker behind an excellent torpedo play from Su'a Cravens. The tables had turned: The Cardinal were not the bullies up front they used to be. They could no longer stomp on their opposition the old-fashioned way, and the resulting Pac-12 power shift was in full effect.
David Shaw and Chris PetersenUSA TODAY SportsDavid Shaw, left and Chris Petersen must make strides offensively to keep pace with Oregon.
Outside of Eugene, the Pac-12 North suffered through a 2014 campaign riddled with disappointment. Stanford and Washington, the Ducks' two biggest challengers in the division, turned out to not really be challengers at all; they finished three and four games off Oregon's pace, respectively, and both were blasted out of Autzen Stadium.

Though the Huskies haven't beaten the Ducks in more than a decade, Stanford had enjoyed plenty of recent success against Oregon, so 2014 represented a landmark shift in the Pac-12 North landscape. Mark Helfrich's program is now clearly alone in the driver's seat, and though bowl season is a chance for the Ducks to again chase a coveted national championship, the runners-up are using this month for an entirely different purpose.

If the Pac-12 North is to become interesting again, Stanford and Washington must leverage their extra string of bowl practices into something that enables them to close the wide gap between Oregon and the rest of this division. Interestingly, both programs face similar challenges: Their glaring deficiencies reside on offense, but defense -- a strength for both programs this season -- is also a looming question mark, as player departures will soon significantly affect that side of the ball in Palo Alto and Seattle.

David Shaw (Stanford) and Chris Petersen (Washington) have a chance to lay the groundwork of positive change this December, while Sonny Dykes (California), Mike Leach (Washington State), and newcomer Gary Andersen (Oregon State) don't have the same opportunity. Stanford faces Maryland in its bowl game on December 30, and Washington squares off with Oklahoma State on January 2. Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State -- who failed to reach bowl eligibility -- will be tasked with clawing their way out of losing seasons without the benefit of any supplementary training.

For Stanford, priority No. 1 in this stretch involves -- at the very least -- developing a coherent offensive vision for what happens beyond this 2014 season. The Cardinal finished this past campaign ranked dead last in the Pac-12, averaging only 25.7 points per game, and the entire season seemed centered on befuddled vacillation between the power running identity of the past and an inadequately defined pass-centric offense of the future. Stanford never seemed to develop a clear offensive identity against a legitimate defense until its final game of the season, a 31-10 romp over UCLA.

Kevin Hogan finally looked comfortable in that game, and his future on the Farm (he still has one more year of eligibility remaining) is likely the central question confronting Shaw moving forward: Will Stanford gamble on getting a season's worth of UCLA-like performances from Hogan in 2015 (he finished a spectacular 16-for-19 in that game after struggling for much of 2014), or will they turn the page to one of their touted young prospects -- most likely Keller Chryst -- moving forward?

The decision there might not come now, but one can be sure that this December is giving Shaw the opportunity to conduct a critically important, thorough evaluation of his offense on all levels after a season of struggle.

On that note, Washington is in a similar boat. The Huskies averaged only 5.4. yards per play in 2014, third-worst in the Pac-12. Petersen is entering his second year in Seattle, so his hand-picked talent obviously hasn't had a chance to emerge, but the Dawgs must scramble now to get more productivity from their offense in 2014. Quarterback Cyler Miles did a good job avoiding interceptions while posting improving explosiveness numbers, but Washington will certainly need him to generate more fireworks to contend in 2015. The quest to improve that begins now, especially since the road will only get more difficult for the Huskies after the bowl game (they will be losing a handful of starting offensive linemen).

Speaking of departures, both Stanford and Washington will absorb plenty on the defensive end. The likes of David Parry, Henry Anderson, and Jordan Richards -- just to name a few -- will leave the Cardinal's conference-best unit after the season. And national sack leader Hau'oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton, John Timu, and likely Shaq Thompson will depart the Washington program. Both Shaw and Petersen will soon be staring at massive defensive voids. That means one thing: The chance for younger players to emerge begins now.

So, while Oregon loads its canons for the high-stakes spectacle at the Rose Bowl on January 1, Stanford and Washington will already be feverishly working toward laying the groundwork necessary to challenge the Ducks in 2015. There is seemingly no respite in this furious college football cycle. The Cardinal and Huskies are readying for bowl matchups that have nowhere near the prestige of the Ducks' clash with Florida State, but the work leading up to them is every bit as important in relation to the next Pac-12 North race, which has already silently begun.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
8:00
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As you know Robbie's shining moment this year was when he set a school record for cursing in an eighth grade English class.

Let's get the week started off right. I'm guessing it was a tough weekend for a lot of people. After all, it was our first weekend without Pac-12 football in months. Don't worry, it's coming back soon enough. But, at least there was really good news for the Pac-12 this weekend. Let's start with a Mr. Marcus Mariota who won the Heisman this past Saturday.

First, let's give some major props to this MahaloMarcus.com video because it's very much worth your time and you can view it right here. It has some classic 8-year-old Mariota footage meshed with some current footage, some emotional music and quotes from Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and the gang. Well done to the edit staff. Well done to Mariota for all these plays.

If four minutes of Mariota on video isn't enough for you ... well, lucky you, everyone and their mother reacted to this news, so we'll give you a breakdown of some writer's reactions.
The state of Oregon just doubled down. And the ghosts of this state's football programs just doubled over. Anyone who has regularly seen Mariota operate the heavy machinery that is the Ducks' offense this season knows he's the best player in America, but it really is something to see the rest of the country see it, too.

And finally, props to Oregon State for recognizing Mariota as well. The Beavers bought a full page ad in The Oregonian's special section for Mariota.

Back page of The Oregonian's special section on Marcus Mariota. Classy move from the Beavers.

A photo posted by Karly Imus (@karlyimus) on

Other awards:

It wasn't just Mariota who picked up a big award this weekend. UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks won the Lott IMPACT Trophy. Kendricks follows in the footsteps of Anthony Barr, who won the award last year. Jack Wang wrote that Kendricks is the latest in what could be a long line of linebacker lineage at UCLA.

And look at how cordial everyone was about Kendricks' win. But would you assume anything else? Never. Especially not from the Lott IMPACT guys.



Also, Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson won the Hornung Award, given to college football's most versatile athlete. The Pac-12 Blog agrees.

All right. Here's a quick rundown ...

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Wednesday, 12/24
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12