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September 3, 2014
Dynamic duo: Kessler vs. Hogan
College football is built on history perhaps more than any other sport, but as is the case in other arenas, history can be arbitrary. There is no protocol for what is remembered, or how vividly, or for how long. There doesn't have to be a reason for any of it.
Take, for instance, Matt Barkley's career against Stanford. At face value, there's only so much to recall. The Mater Dei product went 0-4 against the Cardinal, bookended by a massive blowout in his freshman season and a senior game that doubled as one of the absolute low points of the Lane Kiffin era. The Trojans and the Cardinal have played 88 times and at no other time in their history did USC lose four in a row in the series, to say nothing of those four games all being presided over by the same quarterback. Barkley's role in the series will be consigned to that unsavory footnote, which means that there's no shortage of Trojan fans that would prefer it not be recollected at all.
All the bitter history that Stanford attached to Barkley's name comes with an additional cost beyond the damage done to his legacy. The middle two games of Barkley's career were certifiable classics, a pair of back-and-forth duels with the Cardinal's Andrew Luck that not only featured both players at the peak of their play, but represent perhaps the pinnacle of mutual high-level quarterback play between two schools who have produced more than their fair share of elite signal callers, yet rarely have done so at the same time. That is how Matt Barkley's career versus Stanford should be remembered, as the one player in a decade's worth of sustained quarterback development from USC who had a foil in Palo Alto, the one Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart lacked when Stanford's program was at its nadir and one Jim Plunkett and John Elway never found at Troy, either, during their time at The Farm. Instead, because of how lopsided the results of those games were, their shelf-life is rapidly approaching.
Which brings us to Saturday, where the stakes are already high and the storylines rampant. There is no need to add any hype to what is, on paper, one of the five most impactful games on this Pac-12 schedule. But should anyone need an added storyline, it comes by way of this pair of quarterbacks, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan, and their potential to realize what Barkley and Luck came so close to achieving; namely, to be the signature quarterback tandem in this storied rivalry.
They are different in so many ways despite being redshirt juniors from the same 2011 recruiting class. Kessler is the pure pocket passer, just 6-foot-1 in stature but blessed with a quick release and intangibles that made him a Rivals100 product out of Bakersfield's Centennial High School. Hogan was the three-star product from Washington D.C. with the frame to dream on, and has since filled out into a 6-foot-4, 225-pound battering ram who can make plays with his legs as well as his arm.
Yet they will arrive on Saturday sharing similar early career success after being called upon to succeed legends. Hogan's is the more obvious, as well as the longer tenured. He stepped in for Josh Nunes midway through his redshirt freshman campaign in 2012, and has since rattled off 16 wins in 19 starts. His completion percentage dipped a full 10 percentage points in his sophomore season -- from an outstanding 71.7 percent to a more ordinary 61 percent -- but he accounted for more than 3,000 all-purpose yards and 22 combined touchdowns. As he goes, so do the Cardinal.
Kessler's results have been more subtle, delayed by two full years without game action and masked in his first year as a starter by a prolonged adjustment period, one he has since admitted was partly brought on by a drawn-out quarterback competition with since-departed classmate Max Wittek. Look closely and the numbers indicate a player who is not only on the rise but perhaps on the cusp of stardom; to wit, over his last seven games in 2013, Kessler completed 69.9% of his passes with a 12:2 touchdown to interception ratio.
The beginnings of their junior seasons have been similar as well, both in the immediate and larger senses. Everything came easy in Week 1. Hogan was a crisp 12-for-16 passing with four total touchdowns in a 45-0 massacre of UC Davis. Kessler, meanwhile, fileted Fresno State for 394 passing yards and five total touchdowns en route to a 52-13 Trojan win. In the larger sense, they are both adapting to new offensive schemes. This time, Kessler is in the more obvious role, as new head coach Steve Sarkisian has pushed USC's offense into college football's space age with his up-tempo, no-huddle scheme. Yet, quietly, the offense that Hogan pilots in 2014 has become quite different from the one he debuted in two years ago. 2012 was near the pinnacle of the Cardinal's blue collar offense, with its three tight end sets and bruising, bludgeoning run game. But Stanford's improved recruitment of skill players has coincided with the likes of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo departing for the NFL, and so the offense USC will tangle with in Palo Alto is an explosive one similar to their own, with burners like Ty Montgomery and Devin Cajuste out wide to go with speed backs Barry Sanders Jr., Kelsey Young and Christian McCaffery in the backfield. Long revered for their traditional pro-style sets, the two schools have evolved together and the quarterbacks will help usher a return to the days when it was far easier to tell the offenses alike than apart.
Most of all, Kessler and Hogan share the aftermath of their own classic game from last year, the one that could springboard their own chapter in the storied rivalry. It was Kessler's night, in the stat sheet as well as the scoreboard, and he completed 25 of 37 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown versus Hogan's 157 yards and two interceptions. Almost as crucially, he notched the defining moment that eluded Barkley by completing a fourth-and-two pass to Marqise Lee with 1:23 left to set up Andre Heidari's game-winning field goal and a 20-17 win that marked USC's first over a ranked team since 2011. It set the standard that they now must top, and could well do so in a clash of top 15 teams.
Saturday can and should revolve around far more than their own personal duel, what with a bevy of skill position talent on both sides, and what figures to be a seismic battle between Andrus Peat's offensive line versus Leonard Williams' defensive front. But Stanford has long been a quarterback school, USC has made itself into one over the last fifteen years and football revolves around the position more now than ever before in the game's history; it only follows, then, that Kessler and Hogan set the tone. Make no mistake, this year's Weekender carries ramifications irrespective of how the juniors ultimately perform. Yet USC and Stanford have played too long, too often, with too much on the line for any one game to stand out on its own and so it takes something truly special for any one plotline to endure beyond others. Kessler and Hogan have a chance to write themselves into such a role by making this game a second chapter of the schools' all-time best quarterback rivalry, with a possible third coming in 2015 or maybe in a Pac-12 title game rematch this year. If all goes as planned, they are exactly what we'll remember.