On a bright, warm Saturday in San Francisco, Andrew Luck patrolled the Stanford sideline wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, jeans and dark sunglasses, overlooking the proceedings that many hoped would determine who would succeed him as the Cardinal’s starting quarterback.
While Luck wandered back and forth between the sideline and a small metal bench, the 2012 version of the Stanford football team that had hoped to leave the city with a clear idea of whom its next starting quarterback would be instead returned to the Farm with more questions than answers about the future.
In the annual Cardinal-White Spring Game at Kezar Stadium, the race between Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham to replace Andrew Luck was slated to be the main attraction, but instead the Stanford defense, dressed in its away whites, stole the show and pulled off a 37-29 victory over the offense.
While Nunes spent the day playing with the first-team offense and Nottingham with the second string, head coach David Shaw said after the game that the two were still neck-and-neck at the conclusion of spring practice.
“That competition’s still even,” Shaw said. “I don’t know what the numbers say, I don’t care what the numbers say from today. That position was not played well enough for us today to win a football game.”
In the face of strong defensive pressure that recorded eight sacks on the day, neither Nunes nor Nottingham distinguished himself from the competition, as brief moments of brilliance from each quarterback were often offset by long stretches of inconsistency.
“I thought our two top quarterbacks, at times, played really well,” Shaw continued, offering some tempered praise for the redshirt junior and the sophomore. “Josh made some nice throws that were dropped and missed a couple of checks and reads that we can’t miss, and Brett Nottingham, same thing, he missed some things as well.”
Nunes, who went 11-of-29 passing for 167 yards and two touchdowns, and Nottingham, who went 12-of-19 for 118 yards with a fumble and an interception, both echoed their coach’s assessment.
“For me, not a whole bunch I did correct today,” Nottingham said. “A whole lot of stuff to clean up. I felt like, as an offense, that the wide receivers stepped up today and make some nice plays, but I still think it was tough for our offense to get into a rhythm today.”
“I feel like I left a lot of plays out on the field,” Nunes added.
While neither was overjoyed with his performance, the two quarterbacks both managed to pepper their performances with the occasional exceptional pass.
Nottingham’s best throw came on his first drive of the game, where he connected on a 22-yard back-shoulder completion to sophomore wide receiver Keanu Nelson to edge the Cardinal offense to the goal line.
Nunes’ masterpiece was a wobbly 45-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who made a tremendous leaping catch between two defenders and came down upright in the end zone. Montgomery finished the day with six catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns.
“That was one heck of a catch,” Nunes said afterward, downplaying his role in the touchdown connection. “Maybe a questionable decision [to throw the ball], but it’s great that we’ve got guys who can go up and make plays like that.”
And while the Stanford offense looked somewhat out of sync for the entirety of Saturday’s game — the Cardinal was playing without its top three running backs — the defense registered a dominant performance and took advantage of the game’s bizarre, almost inexplicable scoring system (the defense was awarded points for stopping the offense or forcing turnovers) to give the White team the victory.
“Our defensive pressure was very impressive,” Shaw said. “Our front seven is about as deep as you will find in the conference. When everybody is healthy and everybody is rolling, you might want to compare them to most teams in the nation with [linebackers] Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy on the edge.”
The defense racked up points early and often by forcing the Stanford offense to stall time and time again, taking a 17-15 halftime lead into a 35-15 affair at one point in the contest. While the offense did manage to battle back — the defense had to bat down a Nunes pass in the end zone on the last play of the game to secure the victory — the guys in white were clearly the superior force, even without star linebacker Shayne Skov, who was still unable to play after a knee injury last season.
Although the defense was the more dominant half of the team in the Spring Game, junior defensive tackle Terrence Stephens said the Cardinal offense, particularly the quarterbacks, had little to hang its head about.
“A lot of guys will feel like, at the end of the day, that they leave a lot of plays on the field, but that’s how you’re supposed to feel,” Stephens said.
Shaw, for his part, added that the Nunes-Nottingham competition would continue well into the fall.
“We’re kind of past the point of learning about them; we’re to the point of seeing who’s going to win the competition,” Shaw said. “We think we know them pretty well, it’s just whose going to perform better over time. We’ll just take this evidence we got from spring and apply that to the first couple weeks of training camp and see where we are.”
For now, the 2012 Stanford football team will close up shop until summer training camp begins on Aug. 6, and all eyes will return to Luck and the other departing seniors, who await the NFL Draft on April 26.