If you ever need proof that some people just want to watch the world burn, consider the inventors of the football, an object that packs triumph, tribulation and the ever so fine line between them beneath a smooth exterior.
Math textbooks and Wikipedia articles alike use the football as the canonical example of a prolate spheroid, an ellipse rotated about its major axis — a fancy way of saying you have no idea how the heck it’s going to bounce.
Yet in those moments where leather meets grass, possessions, games and even seasons are defined. Kevin Hogan and Stanford know better than most just how much the bounce of a football can tug at the heartstrings.
At Autzen Stadium in 2012, in the first road start of his career and second overall, Hogan lost control of the ball in overtime and nearly gave a new lease on life to Marcus Mariota and the second-ranked Ducks. Instead, the ball found its way into the arms of guard Khalil Wilkes and the Cardinal completed what still might be the defining win of Hogan’s career, a career in which he has accumulated more wins than any other Stanford quarterback.
Flashing back to last week against the same opponent, we saw a very different Kevin Hogan take the field. The redshirt freshman four years ago who feared nothing because he knew no better (and refused to take his helmet off during games) was replaced by a battle-tested fifth-year senior who led a conference of cold-blooded gunslingers in passing efficiency.
But sometimes the bounce of a prolate spheroid just doesn’t go your way, as Hogan lost two fumbles on two routine snap exchanges on two promising drives in the fourth quarter. It was a devastating finish to an otherwise trademark Stanford offensive performance in which the Cardinal possessed the ball for over 42 minutes.
An experience like that would be more than enough for anybody to develop a case of the yips or wallow in regret, but not Kevin Hogan, who returned to practice this week with a lack of fanfare but completely dialed in. He has seen and endured too much over his career to let a couple of bad bounces derail the Cardinal’s season when there’s everything, including apparently a national championship, to play for.
On Saturday, Hogan will take the field again in his final Big Game, in the matchup that opened the lane for one of the greatest quarterbacking runs in school history.
Sitting directly behind one of the end zones in Memorial Stadium in 2012, I, along with the majority of the red contingent in attendance, had about as good of a view of Hogan’s emergence as you can ask for. After making his collegiate debut three weeks earlier with a five yard run against Washington, Hogan made his first Big Game appearance early in the second quarter and delivered a perfect strike on the run to Levine Toilolo for a nine yard touchdown, giving the Cardinal their second of three touchdowns in a 21-3 meat-grinding win. Three weeks later, he earned the starting job and never looked back.
As Stanford gets set to take on the Bears, it will be hard not to feel at least a bit nostalgic watching Hogan take the field for the final time in this rivalry. I’m sure we’ll have a lot more to say about No. 8 when his career is officially done, but, for the first time, the end feels closer than the beginning. The Hogan era has, in many ways, defined a big part of my four years at Stanford, a constant fixture right alongside Hoover Tower or waffle fries from the Axe and Palm.
The Hogan we see today remains a product of four years’ worth of steady improvement. His dual-threat mobility, the hallmark of the 2012 campaign, has resurfaced this season and saved Stanford’s season in Pullman; his tendency to overthrow receivers in 2013 gave way to him going 18-for-23 against USC and 17-for-19 versus Arizona this year. The grit and resilience he showed last year in playing through the illness and death of his father has noticeably carried over into this season.
That’s why I’m not too concerned about those late turnovers from last week. If anybody knows that a football can take a funny bounce, it’s Kevin Hogan. He’s played through too much, endured too much to have that stand in his way.
As Hogan returns to the game where it all began, I’m expecting a vintage performance from the senior signal caller, and I anticipate that moment being bitter-sweet. Stanford football without Hogan has been an afterthought in the past, but now it approaches with real certainty.
While this reality will be hard to swallow, it should hopefully go down a lot easier with a tall glass of a 4-0 record against Cal.
Ask Vihan Lakshman to explain the science behind Kevin Hogan’s throwing motion at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.