Head coach David Shaw can breathe a short sigh of relief—for now, at least.
In what was a shaky start to the post-Luck era, Stanford football (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) narrowly escaped with a 20-17 win over San Jose State (0-1, 0-0 WAC) in Friday night’s season opener.
“They played well, we didn’t play as well,” Shaw said. “We played hard, but we didn’t play smart. There were opportunities for us to create more separation on the scoreboard than we did, and for whatever reason, it didn’t happen, but we’ll find out.”
The game proved to be a tale of two halves.
The Cardinal wasted no time in getting down to business, striking immediately on its first possession. Senior captain running back Stepfan Taylor’s 1-yard touchdown from fourth-and-goal capped off a methodical 13-play, 82-yard drive engineered by quarterback Josh Nunes. If Nunes was nervous early on in his first career start, he certainly didn’t show it as the redshirt junior completed back-to-back passes for first downs to sophomore wide receiver Ty Montgomery.
“Josh played great tonight,” Shaw said. “He got us to the right plays—he was spot on there. I’m very proud of him; he never flinched all game and didn’t play like a first-year starter. He played like the senior that he is and I’m very pleased by his performance.”
Working from midfield, Stanford scored again on its next drive in quick fashion. Nunes connected with senior Drew Terrell for an 11-yard touchdown, emphatically finishing a 6-play, 50-yard drive that lasted just 2:41. The score gave Nunes his first career touchdown and, perhaps more surprisingly, the senior wideout his second career touchdown reception.
“It was everything I dreamed,” Nunes said. “I wasn’t nervous at all…It was nice to be back on the field again. As it goes, we have a lot to clean up. There were a lot of plays that I left out there on the field that could have helped us out.”
The San Jose State offense got off to a slow start, going three-and-out on its first drive of the game and then stalling at the Stanford 49-yard line on its second possession. After mustering only 32 yards of offense in the first quarter, the Spartans showed some sparks of life in its first drive of the second quarter as quarterback David Fales—another first-time starter—marched them down the field for a 38-yard field goal.
Following San Jose’s first points, the two teams then traded promising drives that ended up in punts.
“They play extremely hard,” Shaw said. “Coach Mac has an extremely good team. They played one heck of a game. When we needed it, our defense showed up and got them off the field. When we needed it on offense a couple of times, we didn’t get a chance to stay on the field because of our execution.”
Nunes showed his poise. With 1:23 left in the first half, he ran an efficient hurry-up offense that included four consecutive completions to three different targets—Drew Terrell, Stepfan Taylor and tight end Zach Ertz.
“I feel like the offensive line did a great job,” Nunes said. “I didn’t really get hit all that much.”
Redshirt sophomore placekicker Jordan Williamson then capitalized off Nunes’ efficiency by driving a 46-yard field goal right down the middle with plenty to spare for his longest career make. The kick gave Stanford a 17-3 lead going into halftime.
Heading into the locker rooms, momentum seemed to be on the Cardinal’s side, but the third quarter quickly changed the complexion of the game. The Spartans offense found its rhythm right off the bat. On third-and-three, it seemed as if San Jose State would go three-and-out yet again, but Fales dished out the ball to tight end Peter Tuitupou for a 20-yard gain. Another couple long completions later, Blake Zurich scored from four yards out on a quarterback keeper to shorten Stanford’s lead 17-10.
“We didn’t hit them in the mouth,” said Taylor, who rushed for 116 yards on 26 carries in the game. “San Jose came out with plan, and they executed it. We can play better, because we want to come out and play a lot better than tonight…We have to communicate and be on the same page a lot more.”
After a fruitless Cardinal possession, the Spartans once again went on the attack. In a drive that saw the Spartans convert three third-down conversions, Fales tied the game at 17 apiece when he threw a 21-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Noel Grigsby.
By the end of the third quarter, the Spartans had outgained the Cardinal 279 yards to 240.
“There were plays in the first half that were the same call against the same defense, and their guy beat our guy,” Shaw said. “We’ll go back to the film, and there are a lot of things that we coaches will need to look at schematically.”
But the Stanford defense would come up big just at the right moment, recovering a fumble by running back De’Leon Eskridge’s at the Spartans 38 late in the third quarter. After failing to punch it in from third-and-goal at the three-yard line, the Cardinal settled for a Williamson field goal that gave it a 20-17 lead with 13:15 left in the game.
Both two teams then failed to score on their next three possessions as the fourth quarter wound down. The Spartans couldn’t cross their own 25-yard line while the Cardinal couldn’t put the game away for good, exemplified when Stepfan Taylor was stuffed by the Spartans defense on fourth-and-one deep in San Jose State territory.
“I have a ton of faith in our defense,” Nunes said. “They stepped up right there in the end. They had two really good defensive stands. It was a bad feeling to come off the field. We love to just be able to run the ball and do what we do at Stanford, but like I said, I have the utmost faith in the defense.”
The Spartans had the ball on their own 18-yard line on its last chance to tie up the score or take the lead. Fales threw the ball deep downfield with the pocket collapsing around him, but it was picked off by Ed Reynolds. With no timeouts left, San Jose State could only watch the Cardinal kneel twice to end the game.
“Our defense was Cover 2,” Reynolds said. “We knew it was going to be some kind of shot, something down the field. From film study all week, we knew that [Ryan Otten] was the quarterback target, so I played top-down. I saw their quarterback, I saw him wait a little too long and I went and got one. It was great to get the pass rush and get him out of the pocket.”
While Stanford’s run defense was rock solid—it gave up just 72 yards on 27 carries—the secondary looked vulnerable throughout most of the second half. The Spartans managed to amass 216 yards through the air by the end of the game, easily beating out Nunes’ 125 passing yards.
Perhaps the most telling statistic of the game was that Stanford only converted 2 out of its 13 third downs.
“Our offense didn’t get the chance to stay on the field because of our execution,” Shaw said.
If the Cardinal hopes to fare better against Duke and USC in the coming weeks, the players will have to fix their mistakes this week in practice—mistakes that included multiple blown coverage plays in the secondary, missed blocks on the offensive end in short-yard situations and Montgomery’s dropped pass on a perfect long ball from Nunes in the fourth quarter.
“Close gets you beat,” Taylor said. “We have to look at the film and play better.”
Stanford will square off against Duke on Sept. 8 at Stanford Stadium.