If there ever was a weekly award given to the least popular person on campus, quarterback Josh Nunes probably tied wide receiver Ty Montgomery for that distinguished honor last week.
As fans painfully watched Stanford’s 17-13 loss to Washington last Thursday night, a slew of angry comments exploded in countless dorm rooms and all over the social media: “Nunes is such a scrub.” “HOW did he underthrow that?” “Who the hell was he throwing that to?” “Is he a high school freshman?” “Can we get Brett Nottingham in the game now?”
So many people were shouting for Nunes’ head on a spike that you’d think it was the French Revolution. Even if you didn’t directly participate in the massive Nunes-scapegoating movement, you still must’ve been frustrated by his inefficiency.
I’ll admit it, I was guilty of that myself.
But in the aftermath of the devastating game, it dawned on me that while Josh Nunes isn’t an elite college quarterback, he’s the right quarterback for Stanford.
There are not that many rookie quarterbacks in college football who could have handled the pressure of replacing a once-in-a-generation quarterback in Andrew Luck as well as he has been able to so far. If you think about it, the Washington game marked the first time that Nunes truly played badly for an entire game. Considering that he threw only two passes in his entire career before this year and that it’s a quarter into the season, his overall performance has actually been impressive.
After the epic USC upset, Nunes was copiously praised for his drive-sustaining, heart-showing scramble on third down in the fourth quarter as well as his perfectly threaded game-winning touchdown pass to Zach Ertz. No one mentioned his absurdly dismal first-half performance, in which he completed 6-of-17 passes and tossed two interceptions. Running back Stepfan Taylor played the biggest role in taking down the No. 2 Trojans, but Nunes, as imperfect as he was, somehow managed to outplay Matt Barkley, the best quarterback in college football.
While there’s no doubting that Nunes continued his awful passing game through the fourth quarter against Washington, he came out on the last drive unrattled. He led the offense to the Huskies 40-yard line before the drive collapsed. But the truth is that if Ty Montgomery didn’t drop the go-ahead touchdown on first-and-15, everyone would be hailing Nunes as Mr. Clutch right now instead of labeling him as Mr. Awful. He doesn’t have the strongest arm or the best awarenss, but he’s got poise.
Sure, Nunes threw a poor ball to tight end Levine Toilolo on the last play of the Cardinal’s drive that was picked off, but it wasn’t great play-calling to begin with. Why give the ball to Toilolo, who only had one reception for 18 yards all game, when Ertz was on fire and virtually uncoverable? Doesn’t make sense. Even if Toilolo created a physical mismatch against every defensive back on the field, it’s not ideal to bank on the small possibility that Huskies cornerback Desmond Trufant, one of the top corners in the conference, wouldn’t make a play on the ball.
To be fair, none of these things excuse Nunes’ underthrown passes and overall inefficiency against Washington. As both him and head coach David Shaw admitted, he needs to fix some mechanics, specifically firmly setting his feet before firing the ball to his receivers on short passes.
Yet even the greatest quarterbacks have to go through a developing process that involves setbacks. In his rookie season, Luck played a poor game against Cal—10-of-30 passing for 157 yards along with a pick—that was eerily similar to how Nunes fared against Washington. In the Big Game, Luck also tossed a game-ending interception while failing to throw for a touchdown.
Inside linebacker Shayne Skov called Nunes “a leader.” Normally that’s a generic compliment from a teammate, but when it comes from the most vocal leader on the team, the statement shouldn’t be taken lightly. Nunes may have been a shy rookie in the postseason, but he’s not afraid anymore to get into his teammates’ faces in order to make sure that the offense gets to to the place where it needs to be.
Does Nunes have significant room for improvement? Obviously. But you can’t accurately judge his skills based on just one road game. When we look back on the season in a few months, we’ll realize that his mistakes against Washington and how he bounced back from those mistakes were a coming-of-an-age moment for him.
So relax, sit back and give Nunes a couple more games before you shout for his benching. You’ll see.
George Chen is one of two players trying out to be the quarterback of the Ink Bowl team, and needs some pointers on how to be 1/30 the passer Nunes is, since his competition is Tim Tebow. Give him some pointers at firstname.lastname@example.org.