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The Stanford Cardinal got good Josh Nunes back in the comeback victory over the Arizona Wildcats. Will he stick around on the road?
Nunes shook off all signs of his struggles in Seattle to put together an excellent performance at home in Palo Alto. Nunes made operation "Find the tight end" a priority, and over half his targets went to the unguardables. Levine Toilolo had no equal in the Arizona secondary and ripped free for big gain after big gain, and Zach Ertz followed up with some big catches to notch Stanford crucial first downs. The monstrous offensive attack started with those two grabbing every throw Nunes took their way. They needed all of them.
But late, when Arizona seemed to make it their goal to take away those two two tight ends up by two touchdowns, Nunes had to find other players to help Stanford along to victory. Thankfully, Drew Terrell, Ty Montgomery and Jamal-Rashad Patterson all proved they were plenty capable, as they all notched big catches to keep Stanford drives alive. Stepfan Taylor was bottled up for the most part until the overtime touchdown, but he kept drives flowing and gave Nunes more managable 2nd and 3rd downs, as the Stanford offensive line still proved they could push.
And then Nunes did it with his legs. He rushed for three touchdowns (including a couple of option looks to keep the defense off-balance at the goal-line), but perhaps the biggest play came on the final drive. It looked as if Arizona was going to get the critical 4th down stop, but just like he did against USC, Nunes scrambled to the right, headed upfield, performed just enough of a juke to get inside the defender, and then scrambled for the big first down conversion. Stanford tied the game later on that drive and held on for victory.
Some of this just might be bad Arizona defense. The Wildcats are surrendering an average of 338 passing yards on the season against Division I-A opponents, placing them right in the bottom five of FBS schools, and they're 115th in the country in yards per play conceded (over six yards per play is never good). To be fair, Oregon, Oregon State and Oklahoma State are no ordinary trio of major college football foes, and Stanford just piles on the list, but the Wildcats defense has had their struggles to start the season.
Also, pass protection stepped up against minimal rush. Despite all the upheaval on the offensive line between this season and last, the Cardinal have only given up five sacks on the season (although some of that is due to Nunes's solid awareness to get the ball out quickly rather than waiting for plays to develop). Unlike the Washington game where Nunes felt the heat, he was perfectly comfortable for much of the game, and he had plenty of time to dissect the Wildcats secondary. For the second week in a row, Jeff Casteel's defensive schemes didn't seem to bewilder a pocket passer at all.
That being said, Nunes definitely seemed way more comfortable back at home and in his own wheelhouse, directing and managing the game. It'll be telling if that type of performance can travel on the road to South Bend against one of the best defenses in the country, and across the Bay to the Big Game. Nunes looked overwhelmed in a road environment last week (and not a particularly intimidating one compared to the louder Husky Stadium), and seeing him perform well on the road could give the coaching staff plenty of relief going forward.
If it does, then Stanford can feel pretty comfortable that Nunes is a worthy enough successor to Andrew Luck to win them any game they play.