STANFORD, Calif. (AP) David Shaw remembers Stanford's first few games without Andrew Luck two years ago as a stressful time for his coaching staff and his players.
Uncertainty at quarterback lingered. Doubt about the direction of the program persisted. And how Shaw would solve the problem remained a constant question.
''Life is so much better now,'' he said.
Kevin Hogan replaced struggling starter Josh Nunes late that season, and the rest is history: two consecutive Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowl berths. Stanford has not worried about its quarterback since.
With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Hogan already has carved out his place in school history. The redshirt junior has been the program's ''stabilizing agent,'' Shaw said, and he's provided hope that the No. 11 Cardinal could remain an unlikely powerhouse entering Saturday's season opener against UC Davis.
''You're looking back at a team that's post-Andrew Luck, that's semi-floundering on offense and having a couple of big games but a couple of bad games, and the kid steps in and all you do is win,'' Shaw said. ''The less educated will just stare at the stats and the more educated will watch the film and say, `This guy's a difference-maker.'''
In a league loaded with talented quarterbacks, Hogan has often been overshadowed by his Pac-12 counterparts. At Stanford, though, nobody has taken him for granted.
Hogan is 16-3 as a starter and 10-1 against ranked teams. He has lifted the Cardinal over Oregon in the Pac-12 North and taken Stanford to the Rose Bowl each of the past two seasons.
What holds Hogan back from being compared to Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley or Oregon State's Sean Mannion is his more modest passing numbers. Hogan threw for 2,630 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. He also ran for 355 yards and three TDs.
That is due, in part, to the fact that Stanford relies on its power running game more than any team in the spread-heavy conference. Even still, Hogan knows he will have to be even better for the Cardinal to complete a Pac-12 three-peat.
He worked this offseason to try to hold the ball higher and avoid side-arm throws. It's part of his goal to raise his completion rate from 61 percent last year and reduce turnovers.
Hogan believes he's a far better quarterback than this time last year. He said he has mastered Stanford's complicated version of the West Coast offense and is starting to study defensive strategies more.
''I feel like I'm night and day,'' Hogan said. ''I know where all my guys are going to be. I know our offense. I know our playbook, the concepts. I know each of our guys. Now I've really been focusing on the defensive side of the ball and figuring out defensive structure and getting in the mind of the coordinator, seeing what he's going to do and kind of playing off of that.''
Hogan should have more help this season. In addition to standout wide receivers Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste, the tight ends are expected to re-emerge as part of the offense as youngsters Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada are all a year more experienced.
Running back Kelsey Young, who has been Hogan's roommate for road games and training camp the past three years, said the quarterback's confidence has a calming effect over the team.
''What I've really gotten from him is you just have to stay poised. The more comfortable you are, the better you'll handle things,'' Young said.
Shaw also credits Hogan for regrouping the team after setbacks. Stanford has not lost consecutive games since October 2009, and an experienced signal-caller is a big reason why.
''It hasn't just been sunshiny every time. It's been tough and difficult, and he's fought through it all,'' Shaw said. ''So you feel good about the experience at that position. He's been through it and he's a stabilizing agent. He's no longer the young guy in the huddle. He's one of those guys, `Hey, the last play didn't work. Here we go, the next play's going to work.' And having that confidence, the young guys feed off him.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP