We knew this one might not be pretty. Of course, Thursday night’s blind date was even less attractive than we expected.
Quarterback Josh Nunes was making his first start on the road in a cavernous NFL stadium, backup tailback Anthony Wilkerson was out for the week with a leg injury and Washington was looking to unseat the No. 8 Cardinal as second-best team in the Pac-12 North. But none of that fully explains Thursday night. None of that fully explains 17-13. None of that fully explains 3-1.
Head coach David Shaw said in the preseason that it takes a team three games to find its identity. If Stanford had found such an identity just in time to upset USC, it had lost it again in the week and a half before it faced the Huskies.
The Cardinal’s defense was rock-solid for the first 44 minutes and 59 seconds, flustering Keith Price and holding back Washington’s hurry-up. But it allowed two big plays for Husky touchdowns, each of which should’ve been snuffed out for just a few yards. Its only moment of transcendent excellence–Trent Murphy’s pick-six for Stanford’s only touchdown–was outdone by a moment of transcendent silliness: Ben Gardner’s late offsides penalty on third-and-4 that essentially ended the game.
Offensively, the effort just wasn’t there from Stanford’s playmakers. Ty Montgomery dropped three catchable deep balls, nobody but Zach Ertz was getting open and Stepfan Taylor went for just 75 yards on the night.
Of course, all the blame will begin falling on Nunes. His 18-for-37 passing and 170 yards were not a step in the right direction (Shaw expects 60 percent completion rates), and his interception in the final minutes was Stanford’s last touch of the night.
Nunes had been underthrowing Levine Toilolo all season on that jump-ball play. This time, Toilolo was in single-coverage and had a bit of separation in front of Desmond Trufant. What a time to go with the overthrow.
In the first half it didn’t look like Nunes’ inaccuracy would make much of a difference, since neither quarterback could get things going. Nunes underthrew his receivers consistently to go 7-for-18 and lead five three-and-outs in the first two quarters. Keith Price was just a completion better at 8-for-18; flustered by the Cardinal’s four steamrollers at linebacker and angry at his injury-depleted offensive line, Price was seen sitting alone on the sidelines between possessions.
Price bounced back, showing enthusiasm on the sidelines and got that big-play help to keep his team in the game. Nunes completed several passes down the stretch, but there wasn’t even enough support for the Cardinal to score an offensive touchdown. The last time Stanford’s offense has failed to get into the endzone? 2007, in a 23-6 defeat at Oregon State.
This one stings, but maybe not as much as I would have expected. A month ago most of the country would have laughed at the thought of the Cardinal still being a top-10 team without Andrew Luck. Three wins later, we had a week-plus back at the top, and the Huskies just helped remind us that we didn’t really belong there–at least, not yet.
Was the USC win a fluke? I don’t think so. But the same Stanford team that upset the Trojans wasn’t on the field Seattle last night, and in the world of college football, you can’t afford a bad 60 minutes if you want to stay at the top. Or even a bad 15.
The good news for the Cardinal is that it has seven more games to prove itself in the Pac-12, which arguably has more parity than any other conference right now. Oregon has still proven itself the clear No. 1, but Stanford, Washington, Oregon State, USC, UCLA and Arizona (in no particular order) have all looked like contenders at one point or another. It will be a fun two months sorting that all out.
In the meantime, Shaw will be saying for the fourth straight week that his team can play so much better. We might not have believed him after his team knocked off USC, but now it’s clear that Shaw has been right all along.
Joseph Beyda spent the night in a constant state of frustration, especially because his roommate’s television was streaming the game 10 seconds faster than his. For ideas on how he can relieve the pain or speed up his Internet, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.