It was only twenty-four hours ago that the villagers were lighting their torches and preparing to storm the castle. Josh Nunes had to go, said the masses, and he had to go quickly. This morning the torches have been doused, and the villagers have dispersed. Josh Nunes carried the Cardinal to victory on Saturday afternoon, and he did so in dramatic fashion.
With the Washington loss still fresh in everyone's mind and concern for the running game at an all-time high, the Cardinal offense took the field after the opening kickoff with the clear intent of erasing those doubts. Starting at their own 35, the Cardinal went to Stepfan Taylor early and often. He carried the ball seven times for 35 yards, clearly announcing that the rushing attack was back.
When Taylor wasn't rumbling downfield, Nunes was taking charge under center. He converted a 3rd and 11 with a twelve-yard scramble (we'd see more of this later), and sealed the drive with nice pass to tight end Zach Ertz for an eleven-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Business as usual.
Arizona quarterback Matt Scott entered the game as the leading passer in the Pac-12, but early on it didn't look like he'd pose much of a threat against the Cardinal. In fact, Arizona fans must've been wondering if he would survive the beating he was taking at the hands of the Stanford defense. He absorbed several wicked hits just after releasing throws on Arizona's first drive, and he was sacked on consecutive plays on his next possession, leading to the Card's first (but not last) three-and-out of the day.
When the first quarter ended with that 7-0 Cardinal lead, it felt like the game would go in the direction of so many others -- methodical precision on offense, fierce domination on defense. That feeling changed quickly when the Wildcats opened the second quarter with a twelve-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to even the score. The touchdown wasn't the surprise, it was the way the drive was constructed. Running back Ka'Deem Carey had a two-yard carry in the middle of the drive and finished it off with a 13-yard touchdown run, but aside from that it was all Scott, all the time.
Realizing that the game plan used in the first quarter could possibly end up getting his quarterback killed, Wildcat coach Rich Rodriguez went to a quick-passing game and all but abandoned the run. Scott threw ten times on the drive, completing seven. Arizona used the short passes and frenetic pace to keep the Stanford defense on its heels, and it produced results. Once the safeties started cheating up to defend the assortment of slants and screens, Scott would hit a receiver deep. On this drive it was a 31-yard pass down the sidelines to Dan Buckner. We'd see this pattern repeated all afternoon.
After another drive marked by Arizona's peripatetic passing game (9 of 14 for Scott, including a key 4th and 10 conversion to Buckner) ended in a field goal, Nunes responded. At 3rd and 5 from his own 40, Nunes spotted tight end Levine Toilolo running free and hit him in stride twenty yards downfield. Toilolo cut to his left and rumbled for twenty more and a forty-six-yard gain. Two plays later Nunes found Toilolo in the back corner of the end zone for his second touchdown of the game and a 14-10 Stanford lead.
Scott led another field goal drive to bring the Wildcats within one at 14-13 as the first half wound down, and the question was clear. Would Scott's arm fall off before the end of the game? He headed to the lockerroom for a shoulder massage after posting six quarters worth of passing in the first half: 26 for 41 for 218 yards. There was more to come.
Arizona opened the second half by scoring five touchdowns and a field goal on their first six possessions, and their offense had evolved yet again. After spending the first half killing the defense softly with their assortment of dinks and dunks, the Wildcats unleashed Carey and started exploiting the shell-shocked Cardinal defense. He carried four times for 25 yards and a touchdown on the first drive of the half, then five times for 23 more on the second. Even though Nunes carried the Cardinal to a touchdown in between (3 for 3 for 80 yards passing and a two-yard touchdown run), there was serious concern.
The shootout continued through the 3rd quarter as the teams traded scores. The quarter ended with the Cardinal clinging to a 34-33 lead, thanks to an electifying 55-yard touchdown from Kelsey Young on a jet sweep, proof that perhaps David Shaw does read this site.
The game appeared to turn in Arizona's direction early in the 4th quarter. After the Wildcats had taken a 41-34 lead, the Cardinal looked to answer. Nunes completed a strike to Ty Montgomery to convert a 3rd and 9, but Montgomery fumbled the ball away, giving possession to Arizona at the Stanford 45. Six plays later the Wildcats were dancing in the end zone, celebrating a 48-34 lead.
With only nine minutes to play and no sign that the defense could stop the Arizona attack, things looked bleak. But as Shaw explained in his postgame presser, the people on the sideline believed, even if those in the stands did not. "We're not a great football team right now. We're getting better. We played extremely well today. But the one thing that we have, we have a lot of guys that have won a lot of football games. You can't discount experience in winning games. So when guys have won a lot of football games, they always believe they can win."
They did more than just believe. Nunes led a courageous drive downfield, marked by a huge 4th and 2 from the Arizona 20. Facing a two-touchdown deficit with only 7:04 to play in the game, a field goal was not an option. Nunes went to his favorite target on the day, hitting Toilolo on a simple slant that turned into a 19-yard gain and a 1st and goal at the one-yard line. Shaw revealed later that Toilolo and Nunes have been working hard together over the past two weeks, and we saw the results on Saturday. Toilolo caught five passes for 146 yards and a touchdown, and defensive coordinators up and down the Pac-12 are quivering in fear.
At 1st and goal from the one-yard line, Shaw did the obvious thing -- he called for the quarterback option! (I warn my students against using exclamation marks in their prose, but I think it's warranted here -- a quarterback option!) Nunes took the snap and rolled to his right, with Taylor as his wingman, but he saw the opening in the line and dove for the end zone to cut the Wildcat lead to 48-41.
None of that would mean anything, of course, if the defense couldn't do what it hadn't done since late in the first quarter. They had to get off the field without allowing Arizona to score. The stat sheet shows that the defense allowed 48 points and an incomprehensible 617 total yards, but what matters most is what happened here. Shayne Skov sliced through a wall of blockers to stone Carey for no gain on first down, and the pass rush forced Scott into two incompletions after that. The defense had answered the challenge. Arizona ran three plays, burning just 51 seconds, and Nunes and the suddenly potent Cardinal offense took the field 79 yards away from a tie score with 5:43 to play.
There was enough time on the clock that Pep Hamilton didn't have to dial up anything dramatic, but he did have to call the right plays, and Nunes did have to execute them. The first test came after a holding penalty pushed the Cardinal into a 1st and 20 hole. No problem. Backup running back Ricky Seale bit off nine of those yards, then Nunes calmly hit Jamal-Rashad Patterson for a 17-yard gain and a first down at the Stanford 47.
Two plays later Nunes rolled to his right on 3rd and 7 and turned up field when he couldn't find a receiver. Two Wildcat defenders closed quickly, looking to force him to the sidelines. Realizing he likely wouldn't have been able to get to the stick heading in that direction, Nunes stopped on a dime (or perhaps it was a fifty-cent piece) and sprinted back to the left, leaving those defenders in his wake. He gained sixteen yards for the first down, and suddenly the Cardinal offense was running downhill -- until they stalled temporarily at the Arizona 20.
Coach Shaw took his final timeout with 1:21 to play and his Cardinal facing 4th and 9. The play he sent in was designed for the tight ends. Toilolo would line up on the left and run a shallow cross over the middle while Ertz ran a post from the right side. If Toilolo broke free, it would be an easy pitch and catch for the first down. If the safeties bit up on Toilolo, Ertz would be open -- and that's how it happened. Ertz ended up wide open, and Nunes hit him with a strike for 17 yards to the three. The next play, of course, was a quarterback option, and Nunes trucked it in for his third rushing touchdown of the day. 48-48.
With two timeouts in his pocket, 41 seconds on the clock, and one of the faster-striking offenses in the country at his disposal, Rodriguez foolishly chose to run out the clock and head to overtime. Bad decision.
The Cardinal defense again came up huge, this time as Arizona sat firmly in field goal range at 3rd and 10 from the 13 yard line. Defensive lineman Henry Anderson reached up and batted Scott's pass high into the air, and linebacker Chase Thomas came down with the interception. For the first time in hours, the game was the Cardinal's to lose, and they did not disappoint.
In a statement that surprised absolutely no one, Shaw admitted afterwards that there were no plans at all to be adventurous on this overtime possession, with the idea that they were already in field goal range. The field goal wouldn't be necessary, however, as the Cardinal won it with Power, their bread and butter play. On 2nd and 5, Nunes handed the ball to Taylor for another run. Khalil Wilkes was pulling from his left guard position, but when he circled back to the line of scrimmage, he found no one to block. He continued up field, with Taylor trailing behind, and flattened a linebacker (see below). Taylor raced past, looked around for any defenders, then sauntered untouched into the end zone for a 54-48 Cardinal victory.
It was a thrilling game and a great win for the Cardinal, but something must be said about Josh Nunes. After enduring ten days of questions about his ability as a quarterback, Nunes emerged with more than just confidence. His final stat line speaks volumes: 21 for 34 for 360 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. When you add his three rushing touchdowns (it should be noted that only seven players in the history of Stanford football, running backs all, have run for more than three TDs in a single game), that gives Nunes a total of five scores. His passes were crisp, his decisions sound, his poise unquestioned.
Josh Nunes, this is your team.
[Photo Credits: George Nikitin/AP Photo; Jason O. Watson/Getty Images]