With the season opener out of the way, the USC Trojans now barrel towards the Pac-12 opener, a key road match up against the Stanford Cardinal.
For both teams, the game is an opportunity and an obstacle. For both teams’ quarterbacks, the contest is also a zero-sum game.
Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler entered this season on the outside looking in when it comes to the discussion of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks. Each has flashed the talent, but neither has produced the consistency to earn a spot at the table with Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley.
With outstanding opening games already under their belts, the first marquee game of the Pac-12 schedule is their chance to showcase their pedigree.
Already named to the Maxwell Award Watch List for 2014, Hogan, redshirt junior, needs to deliver on the promise he showed in 2012 when he rose to the unenviable task of following in Andrew Luck’s footsteps.
As a redshirt freshman, Hogan earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention for his performances in the final six games of the season. He led the Cardinal to six straight wins, including an MVP performance in the 2013 Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.
However, Hogan’s 2013 was hit and miss.
With his interception total ballooning from three to 10, Hogan also averaged the lowest yards per game among starters in the Pac-12 and his 61% completion rating was among the worst in the conference.
Still, Hogan has shown the ability to be a big-time quarterback in the Pac-12. He boasts a 16-3 record as a starter, with an impressive 10-1 record against ranked teams. The big question remains whether he can carry the Cardinal without the safety blanket of Stanford’s consistently elite defense and rushing attack.
Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson, Stanford’s top two running backs in 2013, have both departed, leaving Hogan with the bulk of the responsibility to keep David Shaw’s offense moving in 2014.
Hogan delivered in the Cardinal’s week one game against UC Davis, with 204 yards and three passing touchdowns to go with one rushing in just over a half of play.
Judging his performance is difficult however, considering the opponent.
Still, USC enters this game knowing that they can stop Hogan.
In last year’s upset, the Trojan defense held Hogan to a measly 127 yards, with a 56% completion percentage and two interceptions. He also posted his worst passer rating of the season.
Gaffney carried the team that night, delivering both of the Cardinal’s touchdowns in the losing effort.
On the other sideline, Kessler has his own point to prove.
Following a shaky start, Kessler spent most of 2013 on a steady, upward trajectory culminating in his decimation of the Fresno State secondary in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl at the end of the season.
A similar masterclass this past weekend against the Bulldogs suggests that the Bakersfield native may have arrived on the national scene, not just the conference one.
Another impressive game against the Cardinal would prove it.
Of course it isn’t just Kessler’s credentials which are at stake. Already it feels like Steve Sarkisian’s offense will go as Kessler, its point guard, goes.
Though Sarkisian described his offense as run-first, Kessler ran the show. Facing a stout Stanford defensive front, it is unlikely that the Trojans will turn around and attempt to stuff an unhealthy dose of Buck Allen down the Cardinal’s throats.
With that in mind, it would go a long way for Kessler to replicated last season’s performance, which earned him a Pac-12 Player of the Week award.
More importantly, Kessler will need to continue to demonstrate his increasingly impressive pocket awareness and pass rush avoidance. After all, the Stanford defense led the Pac-12 in sacks in 2013.
Ultimately, for momentum’s sake, both quarterbacks need a victory, but only one can deliver it.
The one that does will have himself, and his team, in pole position to up-end the Pac-12 standings in 2014.