Beyda: Stanford win a credit to embattled Nunes

My friends, you just witnessed the best game ever played in the seven-year history of the new Stanford Stadium. And it wouldn’t have happened without the most inspiring performance by a Stanford quarterback since Tavita Pritchard upset No. 2 USC five years ago to the day Saturday.

Josh Nunes’ numbers were almost as pretty as his deep balls in his team’s 54-48 overtime win against Arizona. But it wasn’t just that he threw for 360 yards and completed 61.8 percent of his passes, both career bests, and had five completions of more than 20 yards.

The man who could never, ever replace Andrew Luck squarely won the hearts of a fan base that, even through two quarters, still murmured Brett Nottingham’s name whenever he underthrew a pass. The man who head coach David Shaw had never seen scramble before the season opener became No. 18 Stanford’s top red-zone option with three–yes, three–touchdown runs. The man whose team wasn’t playing for him in last Thursday’s loss rallied the Cardinal from a two-touchdown deficit in the final nine minutes.

That’s why Shaw has been so insistent on defending his quarterback. And Shaw’s confidence isn’t just a charade for the media, folks. Down a touchdown and in a short-yardage, red-zone situation, he had enough faith in Nunes to call three straight pass plays. It took a fourth-down conversion to keep Stanford alive, but it worked nonetheless.

Stanford’s offense has rarely clicked from top to bottom like it did on Saturday, even with Luck at the helm. Its four senior pass-catchers were there when Nunes needed them. Tight end Levine Toilolo had his best game in cardinal (141 efficient yards on just five catches), Zach Ertz was steady as always and Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson came up with some clutch grabs of their own.

The offensive line had a shaky opening half but eventually paved the way for a 142-yard afternoon for Stepfan Taylor, who took just two carries to solidify the win in overtime. And when Taylor went to the locker room temporarily in the third quarter with what appeared to be a hand injury, Kelsey Young got into the act with a 55-yard end-around to snag a 34-33 lead.

All that made for eight offensive touchdowns, compared to 10 through Stanford’s first four games and zero last week against the Huskies.

But, while the Cardinal had one of its most electrifying offensive performances since that memorable USC upset five years ago, it also had arguably the worst defensive flop in that time period. From the start of the second quarter to the 9:06 mark of the fourth, Arizona scored on eight of its nine drives. The only stop came when a false-start penalty ruined a fourth-and-1 opportunity that the Wildcats likely would have converted, given the unexpected woes of Stanford’s front seven—not the apparent shortcomings of its secondary.

It’s a bit too easy to lop all the blame on the Cardinal’s defensive backs; Matt Scott’s 45 completions were a Pac-12 record, after all. The unit lost shutdown corner Terrence Brown early in the game–an Arizona ball-carrier tried to hurdle Brown and instead went straight through his head–and Usua Amanam and Ed Reynolds both left the field with injuries before returning. That’s three of five starters who were either out or banged up at some point, and the Wildcats took full advantage by passing for 491 yards.

The front seven deserves more of a scarlet letter, even though it sacked Scott three times. An unknown commodity at running back went for over 125 yards for the second straight game, and the lack of a pass rush made it all too easy for Scott to operate. It’s harder to pressure against a spread offense, but with the athletes Stanford has, the same pass-rush formula that threw Matt Barkley off his rhythm has just got to be the catalyst on defense.

The late-game effort to force a three-and-out and an overtime interception was nice, but it is wholly overshadowed by the group’s frustrations for the first 53 minutes. Stanford’s front seven looked angry on the bench, with one player spiking his helmet after allowing a second-half score. Where was that energy between the hash marks?

No disrespect to Nunes, who without question is the man of the hour, but Arizona’s defense is one of the worst on the Cardinal’s schedule, and Stanford probably won’t score enough points to keep up again if it gets into a shootout against, say, Oregon. (Wonder how I chose the Ducks…)

Next Saturday’s matchup with No. 9 Notre Dame should be an interesting measuring stick, especially if the defense can hold up its end of the bargain like it did in Stanford’s first four games. To win, the Cardinal will need a healthy Taylor, Brown, Reynolds and Amanam, as well as the abilities of Ty Montgomery, who injured his leg in the fourth quarter. From a rankings standpoint, the nonconference game will be huge, but Stanford should look at its trip to South Bend as a chance to smooth out the rough patches on defense before Big Game in just two weeks.

Until next Saturday, though, just revel in 4-1. Josh Nunes carried his team and convincingly silenced his doubters. This game was unforgettable, and this season is looking like it might just be the same.

Joseph Beyda will be flying to South Bend next Saturday as he joins Nunes and Taylor in Stanford’s t0-be-revealed triple option attack on offense. Wish him luck at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the executive editor of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a junior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.