STANFORD, Calif. (AP) – There will be no quarterback change at Stanford this week. And if David Shaw had his way, there will be no questions about the quarterback’s job status either.
The second-year coach stood behind junior Josh Nunes on Tuesday, delivering an unprompted and unscripted message at the beginning of his weekly news conference that his struggling quarterback will start for the No. 18 Cardinal (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) against Arizona (3-2, 0-2) on Saturday.
The only quarterback change Shaw wants to see is a change in Nunes’ play.
Nunes completed 18 of 37 passes for 170 yards and an interception in Stanford’s 17-13 loss at Washington last week. The offense converted 5 of 18 third downs, never scored a touchdown and looked lost for the first time since Andrew Luck left.
After last Thursday night’s game, Shaw took exception to a reporter asking if he’d switch quarterbacks. Before anybody had the chance to ask at Stanford, Shaw squashed the subject.
“Josh is the starting quarterback,” Shaw said. “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.”
Shaw, Nunes and everybody else on The Farm recognize the quarterback play has not been up to Stanford’s standard.
While nobody expected Nunes to live up to Luck’s legacy, Shaw wants the quarterback to complete 60 percent of his passes, not turn the ball over and manage the running game. Nunes is 65 of 125 (52 percent) for 785 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions in four games.
Dropped balls by receivers have not helped. Neither has an inconsistent running game, which racked up a school-record 446 yards on the ground in a 65-21 stampede past Washington last year but totaled only 68 yards in the loss to the Huskies this season. Most of that is a product of defenses stacking nine players – even 10, at times – close to the line of scrimmage to dare Nunes to complete passes. And until he does so with more consistency, Nunes knows that will not change.
“I’ve just got to get settled in early,” he said. “It’s something that, well, now I know.”
Outside of a second-half surge highlighted by a pair of game-changing runs to upset USC, Nunes’ arm has been mostly off target this season. While receivers have created little separation and dropped several deep balls, including Ty Montgomery’s miss on the final possession against Washington, Nunes has underthrown fades, tossed at the feet of tight ends across the middle or panicked in the pocket to take an unnecessary sack.
On one play last week, he underthrew an uncovered screen pass by 5 yards and showed a rare display of emotion, pumping his arms in the air, hitting his hands against his helmet and yelling in frustration. Facing fourth and 4 at the Washington 34-yard line with 2 minutes left, Nunes left a fade route to 6-foot-8 tight end Levine Toilolo incredibly short, getting the ball intercepted by Desmond Trufant at the 8 to seal Stanford’s loss.
Shaw attributed some of the setbacks to mechanics, noting that Nunes has too often forgotten to keep his weight on his back foot while going through his progressions, which has hampered the quarterback’s ability to generate enough force behind his throws. Nunes agreed, though he offered a simpler solution to his struggles.
“I just need to throw it better,” he said. “It’s something that’s very fixable.” While some fans took to social media calling for backups Brett Nottingham or Kevin Hogan already, one place Nunes will not find any detractors yet is in his locker room. Shaw emphatically said, “I don’t overreact.” Other players backed Nunes even more, not only putting faith in the quarterback, but making comparisons that he’s not that far off from his prolific predecessor.
Senior center Sam Schwartzstein said teammates believed in Nunes’ abilities even before Luck left. He believes the new quarterback just needs more experience and that it’s only a matter of time before he breaks through.
“You see a lot of talent his way, especially in practice. Some of those balls you’re like, ‘Is 12 here, or is that 6?'” Schwartzstein said, referring to Luck’s No. 12 jersey and Nunes’ No. 6. “One of the things I love about Josh is he’s very good at flushing it. He can flush it. If it’s a bad play, he’ll have a short-term memory.”
Arizona is trying to forget back-to-back losses. The Wildcats got off to a flying start under new coach Rich Rodriguez, rolling to three impressive wins, but they wilted once the conference season started, giving up 87 combined points in losses to the two Oregon schools.
“We know we’re going to be in a lot of battles and we’re not at a point where we can play poorly at any stretch of a game and hope to win,” Rodriguez said. “But our guys are battling and they’re hanging in there.”
Stanford has won seven of the last nine in the series, including the last two in routs.