Oct. 6, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -- If this were only a story of redemption, that would have been enough. But even as the drama and storylines of Stanford's 54-48 overtime victory resonated loudly, they couldn't completely drown out the coming of age of the Cardinal quarterback.
Nunes, the quarterback who was heavily criticized after a loss last week, seemingly grew up as big-time playmaker Saturday, rallying No. 18 Stanford past Arizona in a football game that hardly offered a moment of respite for fans, players, and coaches alike at Stanford Stadium.
In reality, nothing surprised David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, when came to the potential of a player that remained largely hidden until now.
Consider the predicament: Stanford trailed 48-34 with fewer than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter against a team it couldn't stop.
Lead us to victory, Mr. Nunes.
And he did.
"He kept his poise and drove us down the field," said Stepfan Taylor, whose 21-yard touchdown run in overtime won the game.
Nunes led Stanford on two long drives, converting two fourth downs along the way, and finished each with uncharacteristic touchdown runs - the last with 41 seconds left to force overtime. Including a short overtime series, Nunes led Stanford to three touchdowns in as many tries when the team could not afford anything less.
The senior who had an admittedly dismal performance in a 17-13 loss to Washington nine days earlier completed 21 of 34 passes for 360 yards and two touchdowns and ran for three more. He didn't throw an interception, and scrambled for 16 yards on a pivotal third-down play.
"I definitely have confidence now," Nunes said. "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, velocity. I think that helped out a lot today."
What did his coach learn about the quarterback starting for the fifth time in his collegiate career?
"It's not what we learned, it's what other people learned," Shaw said.
But it's also about what Stanford learned about itself. About how it could face a Wildcat offense that carved it up for 617 yards and make two vital defensive stops.
The biggest stop may not have seemed like it at the time, but when Stanford (4-1 overall, 2-1 Pac-12) forced the Wildcats to go three-and-out with 5:43 left in the fourth quarter, everything changed.
"That was the difference in the game," Shaw said.
Arizona - with quarterback Matt Scott (45 of 69 for 491 yards) setting school records in completions and attempts - had frolicked to five touchdowns on six second-half possessions out of the hurry-up spread offense conceived by first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. None of those drives even took three minutes.
That's called, `new life,' and Stanford took advantage after a Wildcat punt by grinding out a 14-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 4:58 off the clock and left Arizona (3-3, 0-3) with no time to respond.
The pressure on that drive was enormous. The Cardinal dug itself out of a second-and-20 after a holding call, and put the ball into the hands of players like running back Ricky Seale and receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson - players who have not been given many opportunities, but made the most of them Saturday.
There was a third-and-7 from the 50 when Nunes cut inside two defenders for first-down yardage after finding no receivers open. And there was the fourth-and-8 from the Arizona 20 when Nunes hit Zach Ertz for 17 yards - the tight end clutching the ball with two hands to his chest to avoid a turnover.
Nunes, as he had done when he cut the deficit to 48-41 with 6:34 left, kept the ball on the option to score on a short-yardage touchdown run. His scoring runs covered 2, 1, and 3 yards. His touchdown passes covered 11 and 12 yards to Ertz and Levine Toilolo, respectively.
"If you had told me a year ago we'd call multiple run plays for him, I'd have laughed at you," Shaw said.
But it was all part of the fabric revealed playmakers at every turn, including Toilolo, who had five catches a career-high 141 yards, and Kelsey Young, who scored on a 55-yard touchdown run on an end around. This was especially true in overtime, which conjured some unpleasant memories from the Cardinal's previous extra-time foray - a 41-38 loss to Oklahoma State in January's Fiesta Bowl.
This one seemed to exorcise those demons, or at least temper them a bit.
Arizona, taking possession first, gained a quick first down to the 13. But the series then took a Stanford turn: Jordan Richards stopped receiver Richard Morrison in space for no gain, and a blitzing Usua Amanam tipped a pass that fell incomplete. Then came the decisive defensive play - an interception in a scrum by linebacker Chase Thomas after defensive end Henry Anderson deflected a pass with his head.
What was Thomas thinking?
"Catch it!" he said. "Make a big play. The team needed it."
Now requiring only a field goal to win, Shaw vowed to stay conservative.
"We were in field-goal range and we were not going to put the ball in the air in those situations," he said.
And so it went. Taylor carried for four yards on first down. But on second, Taylor found a huge hole off right guard, burst through it, and was sprung by a final block from right guard Khalil Wilkes for a 21-yard touchdown -- and the victory.
"We stuck together as a team and had trust in each other," said Taylor, who ran for 142 yards on 31 carries. "We didn't need to go out there and start pointing fingers."
In a game that featured a combined 1,234 yards (617 for each team) and 65 first downs (38 by Arizona), a fourth-quarter comeback, and the emergence of Nunes, Shaw found even more significance to the victory.
"We needed to find a way to battle," he said. "We needed to test our character. It's great to be tested."
It's even greater to be tested and win. Nunes and the Cardinal can attest to that.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics