Freshman QB has lifted Stanford

When a phenomenon like Johnny Football comes along, it makes you wonder about many things, such as:

• When will Lyle Lovett write the accompanying soundtrack?

• Is this what Tim Tebow would look like if he could throw?

• How incredible is it for a freshman quarterback to have such transformative powers?

Actually, that’s a sign of how far-reaching the story of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has become. It has created such an enormous wake that it obscures how much company he has had this season.

Yes, Manziel is fully deserving of winning the Heisman Trophy, but looking around college football, there are a host of freshman quarterbacks who have lifted their teams’ fortunes, some even higher than Manziel.

Everett Golson’s playmaking ability and poise has Notre Dame playing for the national championship. Speedy Marcus Mariota nearly had Oregon there. UCLA’s transition from laughingstock to the brink of the Rose Bowl has been not only because of a new coach, Jim Mora, but also a transcendent quarterback, Brett Hundley, the Bruins have lacked since Cade McNown.

Most quietly, and most recently, Kevin Hogan has had a similar impact at Stanford. Since Hogan, a redshirt freshman, took over for junior Josh Nunes, the Cardinal have beaten No. 11 Oregon State, No. 2 Oregon and No. 17 UCLA — the latter two on the road — in his three starts.

The Cardinal will play UCLA again Friday in the Pac-12 Championship Game (on FOX) at Stanford, with the winner earning a berth in the Rose Bowl.

Hogan’s ability to run has transformed Stanford’s offense — which leans on a strong offensive line and punishing tailback Stepfan Taylor. Hogan’s feet have not only forced defenses to play Taylor more honestly, but they also have opened up passing opportunities.

Hogan, who had a few cameos earlier in the season, has completed 73 percent of his passes. While he nearly lost a fumble in overtime at Oregon and missed a wide-open fourth-and-1 pass, Hogan ran for a touchdown and threw another to tight end Zach Ertz that tied the score at the end of regulation. In the 35-17 win over UCLA on Saturday, he did not turn over the ball, exhibiting both good decision-making and a good feel for the game.

“The last few weeks, he’s been pretty much the same,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Not perfect, but gosh, he’s so instinctive. … He’s not playing like a redshirt freshman. He’s playing like a guy beyond his years.”

The way Hogan has played, it is easy to wonder where Stanford (10-2), eighth in the BCS standings, might be if Shaw had turned to the QB earlier. Nunes played well at times, rallying Stanford to an upset of then-No. 1 USC, and from a late 14-point deficit at Arizona. But he was dreadful in the 17-13 loss at Washington, and his two interceptions were costly in the overtime loss at Notre Dame.

Shaw, though, has maintained that Hogan was not ready to start until recently. Hogan, son of a Capitol Hill lobbyist, couldn’t make much of a case that he belonged in the competition with Nunes and Brett Nottingham, who had been Andrew Luck’s backup last season.

“Early on, in spring and early training camp, he was not involved in our quarterback battle,” Shaw said when he named Hogan the starter after a strong relief stint against Colorado.

“But he showed such athletic ability and such arm strength that he played his way into that competition. As we got closer to the season, I don’t think he had the majority of all of our concepts and protections and run checks completely locked in mentally. 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, it showed that it started to sink in, that he understood what was going on and he could anticipate and make good decisions.”

That assessment is not markedly different than the ones made at UCLA, Oregon, Notre Dame and Texas A&M. It is a reason there will be three freshmen quarterbacks playing in BCS bowls, and in all likelihood another holding the Heisman Trophy.

That’s the difference that can be made this season by a freshmen quarterback — not just the one named Johnny Football.