LOS ANGELES -- Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is not Andrew Luck. Only one man is. Hogan's not terribly flashy. He's far from perfect. His 2013 season included a few more down moments than perhaps Cardinal fans and a few college football pundits expected.
Yet he has led Stanford to a second consecutive Pac-12 championship and a chance to win two Rose Bowls in a row. He's the only quarterback in college football who has beaten Oregon twice. He probably deserves a break.
That break came on Friday from an unlikely source.
"I think [Stanford's] passing game is a little underrated," Darqueze Dennard said.
Dennard is not only a cornerback for Michigan State, which Stanford will face on Wednesday in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO, he is a consensus All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back. He knows passing offenses, and he's not so sure after watching game film that Hogan and company aren't more effective than many think.
For one, just consider Hogan's efficiency. He ranks 12th among the nation's quarterbacks in ESPN.com's Total QBR advanced metric. By the conventional efficiency measure used by the NCAA, he ranks third in the Pac-12 and 17th in the nation.
Not too shabby.
Yet the negative chirping is out there. He struggled during Stanford's shocking loss at Utah and its surprisingly tight win at Oregon State. He threw two interceptions in the Cardinal's loss at USC.
"He's had his ups and downs -- no one is perfect," All-American offensive guard David Yankey said. "But I think he's done a great job mentally because even when everyone's been down on him, it's never guys in our facility. We're all behind him."
One of the reasonable jabs at Hogan is he doesn't play nearly as well on the road, the 2012 win at Oregon notwithstanding. If that was a legitimate question, however, he seemed to answer it at Arizona State during the Pac-12 championship game, when he turned in one of his most efficient performances of the season. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown, averaging a stout 15.4 yards per completion, while using his athleticism to buy time against a furious Sun Devils pass rush.
Further, he came back strong after throwing four of his nine interceptions this season in the previous three games.
"He makes a mistake and he comes back fighting full speed," coach David Shaw said after the Pac-12 title game. "That's what I love about him. We can coach him up hard and beat him up and know he's going to fight back the next week. When given the opportunity, and games are on the line in big moments against ranked teams, he shows what he's capable of."
Hogan could probably put up bigger numbers if given the opportunity. He has the size (6-foot-4, 228 pounds), arm and athleticism to match just about any quarterback out there. But Stanford's offense, as everyone knows, is run first and run second. Even Luck only ranked fifth in the conference in passing yards per game his final year on The Farm.
If the criticism has gotten to Hogan, he doesn't seem to show it. As for the middling numbers -- just 191 yards passing per game -- he claims he's not paying them any mind.
"I don't care about the stats," he said. "I know I'm not going to throw for 300 or 400 a game. If we get into the right plays, get first downs, move the chains and pick up wins, that will make me happy. That was what I was happy with. Getting 11 wins and a chance for a 12th."
Hogan said he's most proud of the improvement of the Cardinal's downfield passing game, and that can be quantified. He has dramatically improved his completion percentage on passes of 25 yards or longer -- from 30 percent in 2012 to 48.8 percent in 2013. His 11 touchdowns on passes of this distance -- with just one interception -- leads the Pac-12 and ranks third among AQ conference quarterbacks behind Baylor's Bryce Petty (13) and Clemson's Tajh Boyd (12).
So when it comes to explosive plays in the passing game, Hogan ranks with Petty and Boyd, two players who have yet to be called "game managers."
It's likely that Hogan will need to be at his most efficient for the Cardinal offense to be successful against the rugged Michigan State defense, which ranks among the nation's statistical leaders in nearly every category, including total defense and rushing defense (No. 1 in both). If Stanford can't get its power running game with Tyler Gaffney going, the ball will be in Hogan's hands. And then he'll get to deal with Dennard and company, who rank second in the nation in pass efficiency defense.
It's important to remember that Hogan is only a sophomore who took over the starting job midway through the 2012 season. Perhaps he created outsized expectations by going undefeated as the starter. While he didn't put up big numbers this fall, the clear consensus among the Cardinal coaches and players is he improved, a consensus with which Hogan concurs.
"I felt much more comfortable in the pocket and at the line of scrimmage, getting into the right plays," he said. "I was much more comfortable overall. I knew what I was doing much more than last year. I was very happy with my development."
With every receiver and tight end scheduled to return next fall, and the offense's top two rushers graduating, it's possible that Stanford will ask more of Hogan in 2014. He's probably going to throw more than 21 passes per game, as he did this season.
Even then, he won't be perfect. He won't suddenly become Luck. But he might just turn out to be pretty darn good, perhaps even good enough to get the Cardinal to the top of the Pac-12.
Like he has already done twice before.