All of the questions surrounding Stanford football last week involved the possibility of a quarterback change occurring. Based on what happened on Saturday afternoon, one thing’s for sure: a quarterback change certainly won’t be coming this week.
Down by 14 points midway through the fourth quarter, No. 17 Stanford (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12) rallied on two consecutive touchdown-scoring drives to tie up the game and then capitalized off Chase Thomas’ interception in overtime to complete a thrilling 54-48 comeback victory over Arizona (3-3, 0-3).
Quarterback Josh Nunes was undoubtedly the catalyst for the Cardinal’s late-game heroics, finishing the best game of his career with 21-of-34 passing, 360 passing yards and five total touchdowns. The redshirt junior also continued to display his unexpected nimbleness, as three of his five touchdowns came on designed option keepers inside the 5-yard line.
“It’s not what we learned,” head coach David Shaw said. “It’s maybe that other people learned [Nunes is] a tough kid. He bounces back, he doesn’t listen to the noise and he’s steady.”
After failing to score a single touchdown against Washington, the Stanford offense had no problem with finding the end zone on Saturday–six trips to the red zone resulted in just as many touchdowns. By the time the second half was underway, the Cardinal showed no shortage of offensive explosion.
But neither did Arizona.
Rich Rodriguez’s high-speed offense was as dangerously efficient as advertised. Redshirt senior quarterback Matt Scott broke a Pac-12 record with 45 completions and gashed the Cardinal defense for 491 yards through the air, the third most that Stanford has ever allowed. The sheer numbers of 103 total plays and 38 first downs showed how successful the Wildcats were at wearing down a gassed front seven and a banged-up secondary.
On an afternoon that saw each team rack up 617 yards of total offense, the defenses increasingly became a non-factor as the game progressed–seven of the last nine drives in regulation resulted in touchdowns.
“Great game by the offense,” said defensive end Henry Anderson. “They carried us pretty much the whole game. We gave up way too many yards.”
Compared to the ensuing offensive shootout in the second half, the first two quarters were relatively tame. The Cardinal wasted no time in putting up the first points on the board when Nunes found tight end Zach Ertz in the right corner of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown on the first drive of the game.
Neither team scored for the remainder of the first quarter–Scott was sacked on back-to-back plays at one point while the Arizona managed to sniff out Nunes’ ineffective screen passes to Stepfan Taylor.
The Wildcats then showed a glimpse of what was to come on their opening drive of the second quarter. Using the no huddle, Scott completed seven passes before sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey scored from 13 yards out to tie the game at seven, capping a 12-play, 81-yard drive that took less than three minutes.
After a three-and-out from Stanford, Scott marched his offense 64 yards into the red zone, where outside linebacker Trent Murphy and free safety Ed Reynolds broke up a couple passes to hold the Wildcats to a field goal.
The Cardinal emphatically answered on its next drive, in which Nunes found a wide-open Levine Toilolo for a 46-yard gain before the pair hooked up once again two plays later on a 12-yard touchdown that gave Stanford a 14-10 lead. Following Ertz’s dominant performance last week, it was Toilolo who starred on Saturday afternoon, amassing 141 receiving yards–a career high–and a touchdown on just five catches.
“I definitely have confidence now,” Nunes said. “The guys up front did what they needed to do as well as the guys downfield. I used last week as a stepping-stone going forward; I made a lot of throws that I didn’t make last week. I applied a few things I was working on in practice–mainly ball position and velocity. I think that helped out a lot today.”
Kicker John Bonano’s 33-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with 15 seconds left in the first half, cutting the Cardinal’s lead 14-13 as the players headed into the locker rooms.
Any possibility of the game turning into a defensive struggle was all but erased when both teams went on a scoring flurry in the third quarter. The Arizona offense opened up first when Carey, who had a breakout performance of 132 rushing yards and three touchdowns, scored on a 1-yard run.
Not to be outdone, Stanford responded with a touchdown of its own as Nunes found the dependable Toilolo for a 42-yard gain before running the ball in himself for a 2-yard score.
“[Nunes] kept us poised and drove us downfield,” said Taylor.
Both teams would go on to reach the end zone two more times before the third quarter expired. Austin Hill hauled in two touchdown receptions for Arizona while Taylor and Kelsey Young rushed for touchdowns to pace Stanford’s scoring. With 15 minutes left to play, the Cardinal was trying to hang on to a 34-33 lead.
The first five minutes of the fourth quarter proved to be disastrous for the Cardinal. Carey rushed for his third touchdown of the afternoon and Scott took advantage of a three-and-out from Stanford by finding Terrence Miller for a 10-yard touchdown. Just like that, the Wildcats were up 48-34 with 6:34 left in the game.
But not even a two-touchdown deficit could faze a calm and collected Nunes, who methodically marched the Cardinal down to the Arizona 20-yard line on the next possession. After throwing a couple incompletions, Nunes delivered a perfect ball to Toilolo, a 19-yard catch that successfully converted a critical fourth-and-two, and then scored on a 1-yard quarterback keeper.
After yielding three touchdowns in its last three showings, it was the Stanford defense that came up big next. It seemed inevitable that the Arizona offense would once again score with ease and put the game out of reach for good, but it sputtered with a three-and-out in the face of heavy pressure from Shayne Skov and Ben Gardner.
“We didn’t start blaming each other or point fingers,” said Thomas. “We knew what we had to fix. It’s huge to show that we can face adversity and overcome it.”
Working from the Cardinal’s own 21-yard line and needing a touchdown to tie the game, Nunes came through as Mr. Clutch one last time, including a thrifty 16-yard scramble on third-and-seven that faked out two Wildcat defenders. On fourth-and-nine at the Arizona 20, Nunes fired a 17-yard bullet to Ertz for the conversion and then completed the comeback with his third rushing touchdown.
“If you had told me a year ago we’d call multiple run plays for [Nunes], I’d have laughed at you,” Shaw said.
With Stanford carrying all of the momentum into overtime, the Arizona offense erred at the worst possible moment. On third-and-ten, Scott’s pass was first tipped by defensive end Henry Anderson and then intercepted by a leaping Chase Thomas.
“I was trying to tip the ball all game,” Anderson said. “I just had to push the pocket back as far as I could. I saw him cock his wrist up and jumped up, and I think my helmet hit the ball.”
A field goal would have sufficed in giving the Cardinal the victory, but Taylor didn’t leave things to chance and ran it in on second-and-six for the game-winning 21-yard touchdown.
“We needed to play 60 minutes, more than 60 minutes,” Shaw said. “And we never, ever stopped fighting.”
Next up for the Cardinal is a trip to South Bend, Ind., where it will square off against No. 7 Notre Dame on Oct. 13.