Both teams’ defensive struggles prevented Stanford from definitively
solving anything Saturday, but the Farm Boys’ clutch performances at
crucial junctures saved everything. Down 14 late to paper-thin
Arizona a week after being shut out of the end zone by a mediocre
defense, the Cardinal’s powerhouse status and BCS hopes were
certainly in jeopardy.
But Josh Nunes and the Stanford defense both found ways to make it
work when there was zero margin for error. The final overtime score
of this one, 54-48, was completely indicative of The Game That
Defense Forgot - with the exception of two game-changing Cardinal
Both Stanford and Arizona racked up exactly 617 total yards of
offense. Stanford’s attack, so putrid in its six-point output at
Washington a week earlier, rolled up 54 points. That’s a figure that
must be taken with a grain of salt, though. The Wildcats’ secondary
was ranked 119th of 120 FBS teams last season, and might be even
worse this year during the transition to a new head coach.
“It’s ridiculous how razor thin we are [on defense],” Rich Rodriguez, the new head honcho, bemoaned after the game.
But how did the Cardinal defense, not thin by any stretch of the
imagination and so powerful all season long, get abused to the tune
of 491 passing yards and 48 Arizona points?
It was 2009 all over again: in front of plenty of empty seats, the
Cardinal defense was sucking wind chasing explosive playmakers while
its offense - helmed by a first-year quarterback - provided the
bailout. Stanford Stadium had entered a time machine.
A Bizarre Contest
Each team’s first drive set the tone for the rest of this bizarre
contest, which could very possibly see 80 more total points than the
Cardinal’s next game, a showdown with defensive stalwart Notre Dame.
Stanford’s initial formula against Arizona’s undersized defense was
simple enough. The Wildcats’ linebackers weighed about as much as
Cardinal wide receiver Ty Montgomery, so the power running game and
hulking tight ends struck first. The Farm Boys’ 11-play, 65-yard
opening drive featured eight runs and a keep-away touchdown toss to
Zach Ertz above a diminutive defender. In a match-up of Ants versus
Elephants, Dumbo stomped first.
But top Stanford cornerback Terrence Brown suffered a concussion on
Arizona’s second retaliatory play. Wayne Lyons and true freshman
Alex Carter would rotate into Brown’s spot for the rest of the game,
compounding an already disastrous match-up for the Cardinal
The Wildcats entered the game with the quintessential balanced
passing attack: eight different receivers had racked up at least 10
catches on the year. Matt Scott’s lethal accuracy and consistently
perfect reads chained the Stanford secondary to the turf. The senior
threw 69 times for 491 yards.
“He’ll be fine,” Rodriguez said. “We have ice for his arm.”
The Cardinal secondary, meanwhile, may need more than ice to heal
its confidence. Tight coverage on the Wildcats’ spread attack was
rare but ineffective even when present. Lyons was blanketing
Terrence Miller when the tight end hauled in a perfect 10-yard pass
to give Arizona a commanding 48-34 fourth quarter lead.
Scott’s quick release and the successful 29-carry, 136-yard rushing
effort of Ka’Deem Carey neutralized the Stanford pass rush by the
second half. The formidable Cardinal unit was pinned to the ground,
down for the count while absorbing vicious Arizona punches in
increments of about 15 yards a time.
Then, a split-second before it was officially pronounced dead, the
Stanford defense roared back to life. It was a turnaround that came
straight out of a Rocky movie, and it started with a Shayne Skov
explosion at the line of scrimmage. Late in the fourth quarter, with
the Cardinal desperately needing a stop to give their offense a
chance to tie, the senior stonewalled Carey on first down. Ben Gardner batted away Scott’s pass on the next play, setting up a
third-a-long that was finally conducive to defensive success.
After reeling in shock from the dizzying blur of the Wildcats’
100-play downfield attack, the Cardinal suddenly regained control of
the line of scrimmage, just in time to re-assert themselves with one
more trademarked clock-chewing drive.
Nunes regained possession at his own 21-yard line, trailing by a
touchdown with 5:43 remaining. His running attack had bruised
Arizona all afternoon and his gargantuan tight ends had been roaming
free on play-action, but there was no way the equalizer would come
easily with the game on the line. The Cardinal’s gritty, 14-play,
79-yard drive walked a tightrope while bleeding five minutes off the
The first defining play came on Nunes’ 16-yard 3rd-and-7
shake-and-bake. His runs can’t be considered “shocking” anymore, can
they? The second arrived on 4th-and-9. David Shaw learned from his
mistake a week earlier; he stayed away from the fade to Levine Toilolo and called Ertz’s number instead. A 17-yard crossing
reception set Nunes up for the tying 3-yard run with 45 seconds
remaining. No. 6 had become the first Pac-12 quarterback since 2009
to rush for three scores in a game, and the Cardinal had forced
overtime with the score knotted at 48.
In the extra period, the struggling Stanford secondary was taken out
of the equation by a rejuvenated front. Henry Anderson’s length
again wreaked havoc with a passing lane. The six-foot-six defensive
end batted a Scott pass high into the air, setting Chase Thomas up
for the decisive interception. Two plays later, Stepfan Taylor
capped his 31-carry, 148-yard performance by scampering into the end
zone from 21 yards out.
Growth Taken With A Grain of Salt
It was an afternoon of growth for the Cardinal offense, which
clearly learned from the plethora of mistakes that devastated the
trek to Seattle. One of the fixes included an implementation of
running game versatility. Taking a page out of Jim Harbaugh’s and
Greg Roman’s San Francisco 49ers playbook, David Shaw and Pep
Hamilton firmly and creatively established the running game against
an undersized opponent this time around. Remound Wright, Ricky
Seale, and Kelsey Young all provided a change of pace to Taylor
after not recording a single carry against Washington.
Their work paid off. Young, perhaps Stanford’s fastest player and
product of Norco High’s Todd Gerhart (Toby’s father), bolted for the
end zone like a flash of lightning on his 55-yard third quarter
end-around touchdown run. Even if this had been a game of two-hand
touch, Young would have scored.
The Cardinal’s varied success on the ground meant that Arizona was
toast downfield. Even beyond no. 1 receiver Ty Montgomery, who left
late with a knee injury, Nunes had solid options downfield. Toilolo
was completely unchecked on play-action downfield, and that much was
reflected in his 5-catch, 141-yard output. Drew Terrell picked up
Montgomery’s slack with three critical catches for 58 yards late,
while Jamal-Rashad Patterson’s 54-yard reception accounted for 28.7
percent of the senior’s career production.
Stanford’s pass protection was again fantastic, giving Nunes the
time to make pretty throws downfield and complete 61 percent of his
passes (21-of-34, 360 yards), just above Shaw’s goal of 60 percent.
Outside of a few forced throws into coverage, Stanford’s quarterback
was remarkably efficient as he jumped from last to tenth in Pac-12
Now, The True Test
Next comes the true test, as Stanford now picks a fight with someone
its own size. Caution was urged even before Saturday’s game to not
blow Nunes’ numbers against a poor, undersized defense out of
proportion. Notre Dame, which features a rigid front seven that
rivals Stanford’s, should provide an excellent barometer of
improvement. The Cardinal’s quarterback will be tasked with
duplicating Saturday’s efficiency against a much more formidable
opponent on the road in a game that feels like a true tipping point.
If the Irish do have a defensive weakness, it is their secondary, so
some opportunities should be present for Nunes.
As for Stanford’s defensive troubles, Derek Mason has to feel
relieved that his unit will not have to face an offense as explosive
as Arizona’s until its November match-up at Oregon. The Cardinal
were exposed vertically, and it wasn’t pretty. But perhaps Skov
foreshadowed the offense-defense bailout role reversal earlier in
the week, when - in response to post-Washington criticisms of the
offense - he pointed out that the Cardinal attack had bailed out the
defense when it had given up 30-plus points several times in the
“That’s how football works,” he said. “Both sides of the ball have
to support each other.”
Four days after Skov’s comments, the Stanford offense came to the
rescue again in a game that avenged the Cardinal’s 43-38 shootout
loss at Arizona in 2009. And this time, they did it by racking up
more yards than an Andrew Luck-led offense ever did.
Even if that production did come against a weak defense, that’s
still something to smile about.
David Lombardi covers Stanford
sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal
football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be
heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
Are you fully subscribed to The
Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on
all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our
award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in
Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com