By Kyle McLorg
Down by 4 points to the Washington Huskies with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Stanford’s Josh Nunes had a chance to achieve something he hadn’t yet in his short career as a college quarterback. Forget his game-winning drive against USC, a game in which everything was clicking – Nunes had yet to show the ability to salvage a subpar performance. The battle with Washington had major implications for Stanford’s hopes of remaining frontrunners in the Pac-12 and Stanford had fallen flat. However, the Cardinal would escape Seattle with their perfect record intact if Nunes could lead his team to its first offensive touchdown of the night.
Nunes drove the offense into Washington territory. Facing 4th-and-4 with the game on the line, he dropped back and floated a fade pass down the right sideline. Instead of hitting its target, the pass sailed over the head of tight end Levine Toilolo and into the hands of Washington’s Desmond Trufant. Just like that, the Cardinal fell to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12 standings.
It’s not that anyone expected Nunes to be the quarterback Andrew Luck was, but his performances have provided a noticeable change of pace for a school that had gotten used to seeing sharp, cerebral play under center. It was rare that Luck threw a pass like the floater that sealed last week’s game. The bigger the moment, the more sure-handed Luck became.
Stanford’s first loss of the season may have been a wake-up call for the team, but it also provided a tempering of expectations and an understanding that they can’t always depend on their quarterback to bail them out.
That’s exactly what the Cardinal were asking of Nunes at a very loud CenturyLink Field against the Huskies’ suddenly stingy defense. The defense gave up two momentum-turning touchdowns in the third and fourth quarter. The wide receivers dropped several catchable passes, some of which would have turned into big plays. The run game, which managed to accrue 446 yards against the Huskies in 2011, could only muster 68 yards in the loss. Although Nunes was anything but spectacular, Stanford’s downfall was absolutely a team effort.
But as the old saying goes, “quarterbacks get all the fame and all the blame.” Head coach David Shaw has had to deal with the repercussions of exactly that this week, and quickly grew tired of people asking whether it was time for a quarterback change.
“Josh is the starting quarterback. He played well the first game. He played much better the second game. He played an OK half against USC, then an outstanding half against USC and is coming off a bad game. We’re not changing quarterbacks. That doesn’t make any sense to me. We wanted to bronze his arm and his legs after USC, and then now I have to answer a hundred questions about how come we’re not changing quarterbacks. It’s asinine.”
As absurd as the questions may sound to Shaw, they aren’t unwarranted. Nunes — who beat out Brett Nottingham for the starting quarterback job before the season — has been unimpressive. He has completed only 52% of his passes. His 785 yards passing, 6 TD and 4 INT are average at best. He doesn’t make up for it as a rushing threat either, with only four yards on carries.
Then again, gaudy numbers don’t always equate to winning football games. Take Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, for example, whose NCAA-leading 1,920 yards and 15 touchdowns have led the Herd to a 2-3 record. Akron’s Dalton Williams has 1,679 yards and 14 touchdowns, and yet Akron has one win. What about Tennessee standout Tyler Bray, whose 1,582 yards and 14 touchdowns this season meant little in losses to Florida and Georgia?
Stanford may not get elite play from the quarterback position this season, but the good news is that they won’t always need it. Stepfan Taylor is an All-American running back. The defense is ranked 21st in the nation in points allowed. The team is well-coached and stocked with talented players. On a squad like this, Nunes doesn’t need to be Luck for Stanford to compete for a Pac-12 title. However, he’ll need to play better than he did in Seattle — starting on Saturday at home against Arizona.