TEMPE, Ariz. –– Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly doesn’t know a whole lot about Kevin Hogan, his counterpart at Stanford, but he knows enough.
“I know he’s a great football player,” Kelly said. “I’m excited to play against him.”
Quarterbacks don’t exactly go head to head, but Saturday’s game between No. 23 ASU and No. 5 Stanford features a matchup of two of the Pac-12’s elite signal callers — and with similar abilities.
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Discussing the top tier of Pac-12 quarterbacks during fall camp, ASU coach Todd Graham mentioned four: Kelly, Hogan, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.
“I’m very impressed with their quarterback,” Graham said of Hogan. “He reminds me so much of Taylor. His ability to extend plays is phenomenal. He is the key to their offense.”
Graham has made the comparison more than once this week and expressed a clear respect for what Hogan has done in just seven games as a starter. Stanford coach David Shaw said he, too, sees the similarities.
“I do, with the passion for the game,” Shaw said. “I see guys that are mobile and athletic, guys that present problems for defenses that can make throws with their arms or make plays with their legs, whether it’s running or biding time to make a throw.”
“They’re guys you have to account for.”
Hogan was Stanford’s second leading rusher last season with 263 yards. Kelly was third at ASU with 516 yards. Both have displayed a knack for keeping plays alive and making something out of nothing.
Each ascended the Pac-12 quarterback hierarchy for different reasons.
Kelly won the starting job at ASU before last season after entering fall camp third on the depth chart. Over 13 games, he proved himself a consistent, confident quarterback, breaking school records for completion percentage (67.1 percent on more than 300 attempts) and passing efficiency (159.8). Kelly ended the year with 3,039 passing yards and 29 touchdowns, one shy of the school record.
Hogan burst onto the scene in Stanford’s ninth game last season, taking over for Josh Nunes. He went 5-0 as the starter, with four consecutive wins over top-25 teams, including then-No. 2 Oregon and UCLA in consecutive weeks to win the Pac-12 title, and then Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Hogan finished the season with 1,096 passing yards and nine touchdowns.
Kelly enters Saturday’s game with more than twice the starting experience of Hogan. Yet Hogan brings bigger wins to the table.
Much of the success for any quarterback depends on the players around him, from offensive lineman to running backs to receivers. Those factors should be readily apparent this weekend.
Both Hogan and Kelly will need all the help they can get on Saturday against defenses that rank among the toughest they have faced. Last season, Stanford led the country in sacks (4.07 per game) and ranked second in tackles for loss (8.86 per game). ASU led the country in tackles for loss (9.00 per game) and ranked second in sacks (4.00 per game). Undoubtedly, both passers will face significant pressure.
“I don’t have to do anything,” Hogan said. “That’s my offensive line. I trust them. We’re going to have game plans for whatever their fronts do, their blitzes. I don’t worry about that.”
Still, when the breakdown does occur, it’s up to the quarterback to make something happen.
“I have to use my legs as an ability to hurt the defense and protect that football,” Kelly said. “That’s huge. And then I just have to get it to my playmakers and extends plays.”
To the same end, the defenses know that neutralizing the playmaking ability of a quarterback like Kelly or Hogan presents its own set of challenges.
“When I watch film and see (Hogan) he’s got pretty good speed outside the pocket and he makes good reads,” ASU linebacker Chris Young said. “He’s very disciplined in that aspect.
“We have to make sure when we have chances to sack him that we take advantage of those opportunities.” Kelly also has shown he’s capable outside the pocket.
“He can pull it down and run, he can make the big play with his arm, can make the off-schedule play where he gets rushed and can slide out of danger and find a guy down the field,” Shaw said.
Both quarterbacks have improved wide receiving corps to work with and potent running backs to complement them. And both have had an offseason improve and fine-tune what they do on the field.
Taking all that into consideration, many think Saturday’s first meeting between Hogan and Kelly has the potential to be a warm-up act to an encore performance in December’s Pac-12 Championship.