Shutdown in Seattle: Washington 17, Stanford 13

September 28, 2012

I have a confession.

After the Stanford Cardinal football team beat USC, 21-14, on Sept. 15, I dared to dream. I dreamed about Stanford beating Oregon in Eugene on Nov. 17. I dreamed about running the table. I dreamed about the Cardinal securing a top-five ranking and a place in the national championship conversation. I began looking at my Cardinal Rose Bowl T-shirt from 2000 and imagining another trip to Pasadena.

There’s a chance that many of those dreams still might be realized. But they are much less likely to come about after the Washington Huskies largely shut down the Cardinal offense in a 17-13 victory in Seattle Thursday night.

It was a painful loss, as much for what it showed about the Cardinal football team as for the damage it did to the hopes and dreams of fans such as me. The anemic offense that seemed sure to doom Stanford throughout most of the last two games never transformed itself into the competent attack that generated two second-half touchdowns against the Trojans.

Quarterback Josh Nunes remained mediocre (to put it very, very kindly). Stepfan Taylor, who produced 213 yards of overall offense against USC, was taken down a notch, as the Huskies defense limited him to 75 yards rushing and no net yards on four catches. Zach Ertz caught six balls for 106 yards, but Nunes only completed 12 other throws to four other receivers — that on a night when he made 37 pass attempts.

Nunes was also penalized twice for delay of game, and the team burned a timeout once in the first half and again in the second half because there was some confusion about the play that had been sent in to the quarterback. Those kinds of miscues shouldn’t be happening in the fourth game, let alone happening with such frequency.

The Cardinal offense entered the week converting a shade less than 31 percent of its third-down opportunities, leaving the squad ranked 106th out of 120 Football Bowl Championship teams. That abysmal standing could be even worse come Sunday, as Nunes and company only converted five of 18 third downs (27.8 percent).

Of 14 drives that the team mounted, just two resulted in points — a pair of solidly struck first-half field goals kicked by Jordan Williamson, who had previously missed five straight tries. The other 12 possessions resulted in nine punts, the end of the first half (the Cardinal kneeled after fielding a punt with six seconds remaining), a Nunes fumble to start the second half and a Nunes interception at the end of the game.

Nunes has displayed an arm that could be called inconsistent at best. He frequently underthrows what should be routine balls; at one point, he tossed a short screen pass that bounced to the intended receiver, which would have been an admirable accomplishment using basketball rules but is utterly useless and embarrassing in football.

But perhaps one out of every three times Nunes lofts the ball, he demonstrates a terrific touch. Sometimes this shows on simple attempts, other times on long or otherwise ambitious throws.

Because such passes are relatively rare from Nunes, it was especially troubling to see Ty Montgomery drop at least three creditable pass attempts. Stanford’s is an offense that will succeed only when the players make the most of their opportunities. (Montgomery did have six receptions for 39 yards, but it is certainly his drops that Cardinal fans will remember when they look back on this game.)

It was discouraging, too, to see at least two fairly lengthy television shots of Nunes sitting on the bench and not talking to his teammates or coaches. As I tweeted during the game, those images do not bespeak leadership to my — admittedly layman’s — eyes.

And yet…and yet… Despite the Cardinal’s comprehensive ineptitude on offense, this was a game that was clearly winnable. The play of Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s unit was outstanding.

Normally, holding a host team — especially one quarterbacked by Keith Price, whom some consider a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate — to 313 yards and just 17 points is a performance that puts a visiting squad in excellent position for a victory. A defensive touchdown, like the 40-yard interception return by outside linebacker Trent Murphy, made this contest so much more winnable.

I firmly believe that one more long drive ending in a field goal might have been enough to seal a win for Stanford. As well as the Cardinal defense performed, its players were clearly tiring by the fourth quarter. Heck, even one additional long drive that didn’t yield points for Stanford might have given the defense enough rest so that they never would have allowed Washington’s two touchdowns, which both came relatively late in the game.

So it all comes back to Stanford’s offensive ineptitude.

So what shut down the Cardinal offense? Lots of things, some of which I’ve already mentioned — a wildly inconsistent Nunes, drops by receivers (especially Montgomery), miscues with play calls, futility on third down.

But another key factor was the Huskies defense, which performed much better than the 2011 version did. The defense executed its plan to perfection: Stack the box, shut down the run and force Nunes to throw.

USC’s defense could not carry out that plan, but USC is thin on both lines thanks to NCAA sanctions that have decreased the school’s number of scholarships. (The fact that Stanford hosted USC but went on the road to face Washington is also no small matter.)

Since David Shaw became head coach prior to the 2011 season, Stanford fans have faulted his play-calling. I’m willing to give Shaw more slack. Yes, the Cardinal probably should have run more — but that would not have guaranteed a win. By calling first-down passes and wildcat plays, Shaw and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton tried to keep the Huskies off-balance. And let’s face it: With just two more third-down conversions, or just two more catches, or just two more long gains (either on the ground or through the air), the Cardinal might have won in Seattle.

Stanford ran for a school-record 446 yards against Washington in Palo Alto last year, but the Huskies had a different defensive coordinator then, and Stanford had an all-world quarterback — Andrew Luck. Luck is not just a much better passer than Nunes, he is also a better runner than this year’s Cardinal quarterback, and he has superior football knowledge. Luck didn’t just call more rushing plays last year than Shaw and Hamilton did this year — he called the right plays, making last-second adjustments at the line of scrimmage to exploit weaknesses in UW defensive formations that Nunes is presumably unable to perceive.

So what’s next for Stanford? Shaw not only stuck with Nunes under center throughout Thursday night’s contest, he said shortly afterward that the senior will start the Oct. 6 home game against the potent Arizona Wildcats. Fans have been gnashing their teeth and calling for Nottingham or another backup to play, and I’m a little (but only a little) surprised that Nunes got all of the action Thursday.

I choose to take an optimistic outlook here. I believe that Nunes has been better in practice than in games and that he will start to throw better and more consistently when it counts. I believe that if Nunes plays like an average FBS quarterback, there is enough talent on offense and defense for Stanford to put together a respectable winning streak against strong Pac-12 competition (plus Notre Dame). I believe that Nunes was likely somewhat rattled by starting his first road game ever on the collegiate level, and that he could well perform much better on Oct. 13 at Notre Dame. I believe that Shaw and his staff are on the right track as far as developing Nunes — and, I hope, the other QBs on the roster.

In other words, I believe in happy endings. There may not be a Rose Bowl or a BCS bowl in this team’s future, but this still could be a very successful team. And like other Cardinal faithful, I’ll be watching the Arizona game very closely to see whether those beliefs are likely to be rewarded.

•••

• Keith Price finished with numbers surprisingly similar to those of Josh Nunes. The Huskies passer was 19-37 for 177 yards, one touchdown (35 yards to Kasen Williams) and one pick. Nunes was 18-37 for 170 yards, no scores and an interception. Arguably the biggest difference between them was on the ground: Nunes (three carries for minus-15 yards) had a long gain of zero yards on three carries while Price (six for minus-14) had a 10-yard run.

• Washington outrushed Stanford, 136-65, which includes (of course) Bishop Sankey’s demoralizing 61-yard touchdown run to close the third quarter. But the Dawgs finished 4-17 on third downs. The Huskies were 2-3 on fourth down; Stanford missed on its lone fourth-down try.

• I’ve already praised the Cardinal defense, but let me note that the pressure on Price was outstanding. He was sacked three times and hit and harassed on several other plays. Players at all three levels of the Stanford defense generally did a good job of swarming to the ball.

• I know I’m not the only Stanford fan who is thrown by the Cardinal playing two non-Saturday games over the first month of the season. Yes, it’s disconcerting — but the national television exposure of a Thursday night ESPN game is invaluable, and even a Friday night game on the Pac-12 Network draws something of a spotlight. As long as no conference team plays exceeds two (at a pinch, three) regular-season games on a day that doesn’t start with “Satur-” in any given year, I will happily accept this kind of nontraditional scheduling.

• I like what I saw from the Stanford special teams last night. Washington got just 28 yards on three punt returns — pretty good considering the Cardinal punted nine times. Cardinal players Ty Montgomery and Alex Carter also combined for 96 yards on three kickoff returns. Stanford didn’t return any punts, but it seemed the squad came close to blocking a punt on at least two occasions. Moreover, as noted above, Jordan Williamson was flawless. If the Cardinal defense merited an A from its performance, as I would argue, the special teams earned a B+. (Offense? D.) If special teams can maintain this level of performance throughout the season, it will help offset having a mediocre or even subpar offense.

• Like a lot of other Cardinal fans, I’m not very fond of Shaw’s red-on-red Stanford sweatshirt. But if he keeps on winning games, he’s allowed to wear virtually anything he wants on game day as long as it’s colored red and doesn’t have another team’s name on it. Focus on what’s important: Educating players first, running a clean program second, succeeding on the field third and displaying pleasing-to-the-eyes coaching apparel a very, very distant fourth — at best.

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