Let's cut to the chase with the facts: Josh Nunes is dead last in Pac-12 passing efficiency (114.2). His completion rate (52 percent) is also far and away the league worst. It's over four points lower than the 2010-2011 marks posted by UCLA's Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince, two recent passers scorned for their lack of accuracy. Over the last three seasons, only one conference quarterback, the 2010 wreck that was Cal's Brock Mansion, has posted a worse passing efficiency rating than Nunes here in 2012. Making matters worse, he's struggling against defenses that have been keying on the run, and not the pass.
Efficiency numbers indicate that, since the departure of Andrew Luck, Stanford quarterback play has tumbled from the very top of the Pac-12 to the conference cellar. Given the fact that the Cardinal hangs its hat on ground-and-pound, run-first football, passing efficiency is absolutely critical in setting up manageable down situations to keep the chains moving. This hasn't been the case: a year after converting an elite 49.1 percent of its third downs, Stanford is keeping the markers moving only 29.8 percent of the time this season, 111th in the nation.
Nunes' inexperience can only explain so much, especially when the top three Pac-12 quarterbacks in passing efficiency are also first-year starters. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, and UCLA's Brett Hundley have all completed more than two-thirds of their passes and combined for 31 touchdowns. Together with Oregon State's Sean Mannion, a true sophomore, all four have been statistically better than USC senior Matt Barkley thus far.
Nunes, meanwhile, has struggled to stay afloat. After his two-interception first half against USC featured a completion rate that flirted with the 30 percent mark, his respectable late-game play led the Cardinal to the game's winning touchdown. But since that performance was buoyed by 33 rushing yards that David Shaw himself said were "shocking," can that level of play be consistently attained in the future?
Subsequent struggles at Washington were not a promising sign. To be fair, Nunes was making his first road start in an ear-shattering environment. But two factors worked in his favor: his opponent's defense was porous and over-aggressive against the run. Nunes' final line was poor anyway, consistent with his previous home game against a Pac-12 opponent. It's easy to forget most of those USC struggles because the Cardinal won, but Nunes' completion percentage there (46 percent) was even worse than at CenturyLink Field (48 percent).
Three long drops by Ty Montgomery also hurt the quarterback's numbers in Seattle, but at least one was canceled out in the box score by a shorter completed pass that was the quarterback's mistake (the negative screen toss that left Stepfan Taylor out to dry in the face of two hard-charging defenders).
Nunes must improve his accuracy in the short-to-medium range passing game. He's thrown a few nice deep balls, but those aren't nearly as important in the context of Stanford's offense as its bread-and-butter short throws. A bounce pass to Ryan Hewitt five yards away in the backfield is not the product of road inexperience. It's shaky quarterback play that's almost as damaging as the "negative plays" Shaw hoped Stanford would avoid when he selected Nunes over Brett Nottingham for the starting quarterback job.
Unstable offensive performance led to seven three-and-outs against Washington, a number that has only ballooned since the season's opening game. Against both San Jose State and Duke, the Cardinal failed to move the chains on three drives. Against USC, it happened five times. It's added up to 18 three-and-outs through just four games, just a year after the Luck-led offense had four three-and-outs through the season's first two months. None of these numbers support the notion that Nunes' command of the offense has tangibly improved.
No. 6 must display dramatic improvement against Arizona and at Notre Dame, for last week's loss at Washington sent a clear message. Even an elite defense will lose when hindered by poor quarterback play. Shaw seems to have faith in his chosen man, but the time to elevate performance is now.
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.
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