Generally speaking, a reliable presence under center is one of the most vital components of an offense in college football — and it’s rare that a team succeeds without one.
But in the case of Stanford and Oregon State, quarterback play has been each team’s biggest question mark as they try to keep pace with Oregon in the Pac-12 North Division race.
In fact, when the No. 11 Beavers (7-1, 5-1 Pac-12) and No. 14 Cardinal (7-2, 5-1) meet on Saturday afternoon in Palo Alto (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX), both teams will start untried signal callers whom few expected to play a vital role at all this season — much less with a division title potentially hanging in the balance.
For Oregon State, head coach Mike Riley will hand the reins to junior Cody Vaz, who will get the call for the second straight week and fourth time this season.
After playing sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and sitting for all of 2011, Vaz slid into the Beavers’ starting role in Week 6 after Oregon State starter Sean Mannion had minor surgery on his left knee. Vaz completed 36 of 58 passes for 506 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in his stopgap role in wins over BYU and Utah, but was relegated back to the bench when the sophomore Mannion returned.
However, Mannion struggled in his first game back, throwing four picks in a 20-17 loss to Washington. Riley pulled Mannion late in that game after Mannion started the fourth quarter 1 for 4 with two interceptions, and Vaz came in and led the Beavers to a game-tying score on the next drive, earning him the start last week against Arizona State, where he threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-26 win.
“It’s kind of a difficult thing to be in, trying to choose between two good guys, two good players,” Riley said Tuesday. “I think both guys can win for our team, and we’re thankful for the situation, but it’s difficult for the guy, obviously, that’s not getting to play.”
On the other side, Stanford coach David Shaw gave the nod to redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan, who will be making his first career start on Saturday.
Coming into camp, Hogan wasn’t even mentioned in the discussion of who would be the quarterback to replace No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck in the Cardinal backfield, with Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham seemingly battling for the spot. Less of a traditional pocket passer, Hogan was considered more of a gimmick, a read-option quarterback who could also be used in wildcat formations.
Nunes eventually won the job, but struggled with consistency, especially in losses to Washington (18 of 37, 170 yards, one interception) and Notre Dame (12 of 25, 125 yards, two interceptions), and last week, Shaw decided to give Hogan something of an extended tryout against Colorado.
“I don’t think he had the majority of all of our concepts and protections and run checks completely locked in mentally,” said Shaw of Hogan’s performance in camp. “It just takes a while. But throughout the beginning of the season, whether it was scout team or getting a few reps with the starters, he showed that it started to sink in, that he understood what was going on, that he could anticipate and make good decisions.”
Hogan went on to throw for 184 yards and two TDs in a 48-0 win over the Buffaloes, also rushing seven times for 48 yards, seemingly cementing his spot as the Cardinal starter going forward.
“(He) showed that he could run his package but also showed that he can run our third-down offense, that he can run our two-minute offense, that he can just operate our kills and our checks in the running game,” Shaw said. “He put his athleticism and his intellect with the knowledge of what we were doing, and he showed that he could be an effective quarterback.”
In addition to the pressure of starting on a national stage, both quarterbacks will find their job complicated by the opponent’s unforgiving defense. Both Oregon State and Stanford are ranked in the nation’s top five in run defense, with the Cardinal giving up a FBS-best 57.8 yards per game.
“It’s impressive to watch if you aren’t playing them,” Riley said of the Cardinal. “It’s a big chore watching this film. When you look at a game like USC, (Stanford allowed) 27 yards rushing against them, it’s pretty imposing.”
The lack of room to run will force both teams to the air, but it’s unlikely they’ll find much more luck there. The Cardinal and Beavers each allow fewer than 20 points per game, putting both teams in the top 20 in scoring defense, and both teams are ranked in the top-25 percent in pass defense, as well.
“They don’t give up a ton of big plays, they play extremely hard and you can’t take a play off or they’ll hit your quarterback,” Shaw said. “You can’t take a play off blocking somebody because they’ll beat you because they don’t ever stop.”
Given the challenge that each team faces Saturday — not to mention the old adage of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — it seems somewhat curious that either coach would have contemplated a quarterback change at all, the thought being that the more experienced guys who got them here should be the ones to carry the load going forward.
But both coaches say they’re comfortable with the decision to forge ahead with a new leader in the huddle.
“I think that in our world, in our past, we’ve always had one guy and he’s played the season, and that’s the way it’s been, but this year is different,” Riley said. “Fortunately, we’ve had a guy step in and we haven’t really skipped a beat.”
Added Shaw: “Usually you’re in these positions because your quarterback is playing and playing well, but both teams have to do what’s necessary to help their teams win.”