State of Stanford: Arizona Week

David Shaw isn't buying into it, but a quarterback controversy is rumbling in the Stanford community. Talk is bound to surface when the current player in charge is last in the conference in passing efficiency and completion percentage through a quarter of the season.

Josh Nunes, currently the owner of the second lowest Pac-12 passer efficiency rating since 2010, is in that undesirable statistical spot right now. So Shaw opened with adamant support for his man.

"I'm not going to answer questions about changing quarterbacks. Josh Nunes is our quarterback," he said. "[All this talk of change] doesn't make sense to me. It's asinine."

In fairness to Shaw, a head coach is expected to be 100 percent supportive of his quarterback up until the minute a change is made. But in fairness to journalistic integrity, questioning the length of Nunes' leash is the only proper course of action. While Stanford's new man struggled mightily in the Cardinal's 17-13 loss to Washington, other new conference quarterbacks continued to lengthen their impressive debuts. The Pac-12's three leaders in passing efficiency, in fact, are first-year starters.

Meanwhile, Stanford's offense flounders. A year after humiliating Washington with 65 points, the Cardinal failed to score an offensive touchdown en route to their 17-13 defeat in Seattle. Shaw contends that "everyone wanted to bronze [Nunes'] arm after USC," and that last Thursday's defeat was only one bad game that shouldn't be blown out of proportion. (For the record, many, myself included, were not impressed with Nunes' overall body of work against USC, either - he completed just 46 percent of his passes in that game). But the fact is that Shaw's counting on No. 6 to right the ship at Saturday's Homecoming game against Arizona, so it's time to turn the page with that game in mind.

Offensive Improvement Against Arizona
"It's time to put it all together." That's this week's offensive mantra, according to Shaw. The opportunity for improvement will certainly be present. It'll be a game of ants versus elephants: the Wildcats' heaviest linebacker weighs only three pounds more than Ty Montgomery, while the Cardinal have possibly the biggest offense in college football. Of course, Stanford was also armed with a considerable weight edge against Washington last week. This time, however, they'll also be buoyed by the home field environment.

Expect more of the same: Arizona's true 3-3-5 defensive alignment will swarm the box and force Nunes to loosen the formation with his arm. Theoretically, combating this should not be a problem: Stanford's tight ends will again hold six- to eight-inch height advantages over their defenders. But last week's offensive debacle proved that taking advantage of that size is much easier said than done. According to Shaw, a key will be the Cardinal's ability to better execute on second down.

"Our first down efficiency [against Washington] was good, but we need to do better on second down. If we get to second and five, we need to get to third and two, not third and five or third and seven," he said. "That's not us."

That fix requires an improved short passing game. Against Washington, Shaw contended that every downfield ball thrown by Nunes was perfect with the exception of his last toss, a game-sealing interception intended as a fade on fourth down to Levine Toilolo. He attributed Nunes' short and intermediate-range passing struggles on the quarterback's incorrect weight distribution, saying that he wasn't reloading when going through his progressions to set up a good check-down throw.

Nunes himself seemed slightly flummoxed when asked to explain why short throws, and not long ones, have given him trouble. "I guess it's part mental and part physical," he ultimately said.

Repairing those issues will be the primary ingredient in elevating Stanford's completion rate to Shaw's target of 60 percent. It has floundered under 50 percent for two straight games. More accurate passing numbers, coupled with some more varied running looks, should put an already undersized Arizona defense into extremely vulnerable position.

"We're definitely close," Nunes said. "Now we have to up our completion percentage and be more efficient on third down. We can't have as many three-and-outs as we've had."

The Cardinal have had 18 of those instant drive killers already, after suffering through only four three-and-outs during the first two months of last season.

Defense Looks to Do It Again
Although Shayne Skov expressed confidence in the Stanford offense's abilities to turn its struggles around, he emphasized that the Cardinal defensive mentality has never counted on outside help.

"You can't possibly lose a football game if you don't give up any points," he said.

So it's no surprise that Washington's two game-changing touchdowns, fueled by missed tackles, sorely disappointed the fiery linebacker. Shaw, meanwhile, excused his defense's performance on those two snaps.

"If you give any good team in college football the ball too many times, they're going to break one," he said. "I don't care how good your defense is."

The Cardinal face a new challenge in stopping Rich Rodriguez's Arizona spread offensive attack Saturday. The Wildcats have racked up 538 yards of total offense per game. They average 88 snaps per contest, second in the nation to only Marshall (92.4 snaps/game). Skov said that he'd rather face a straightforward smashmouth football team instead of Arizona's lateral attack.

"As a linebacker in general, it gets a little annoying chasing guys sideline to sideline," he laughed. "It's like basketball on grass. I'd rather be hitting people than chasing them."

Rodriguez's offensive approach is similar to Chip Kelly's Oregon attack in the way that it tries to exhaust the defense, but not in the way that it attacks the field. Shaw said that the Wildcats will stretch defenses more laterally and over-the-top than Oregon, while the Ducks prefer to attack the seams to see if they can force safeties out of position for the benefit of their running game.

Either way, Stanford nose tackle Terrence Stephens emphasized that this will be an endurance test for the Cardinal.

"Playing a spread team is hard for me because I'm not the best at pass rushing," he said. "We're going to have groups of people going in and going out, making sure we're staying fresh. We don't lack the athletes. We don't lack the size. It's going to be all mental."

Injury Report
Running back Anthony Wilkerson (leg injury during the USC game) is "going to be close" to returning this weekend, per Shaw. There is no other new injury news to report.

Other Nuggets
  • Shaw was extremely pleased with the "smooth and natural" performance of kicker Jordan Williamson, who bounced back from missing four straight field goals to nail two in Seattle.
  • Stanford players were extremely and consistently complimentary of Nunes' performance in practice. "You see a lot of talent from him, especially at practice," center Sam Schwartzstein said. "Sometimes you wonder, is that 12 [Andrew Luck] or [No.] 6?"
  • Skov echoed that sentiment. "[Nunes] has displayed time and time in practice that he is capable of being the starting quarterback on this team."
  • Stephens, a former wrestler, is an authoritative and articulate sound bite machine. "You can't sulk [about the loss]. You have to be a man about it," he said. "We still are in the running to win the conference."
  • Shaw elaborated on third string quarterback Kevin Hogan entering the game for one five-yard run. "That's an aspect of the game that we'll see week to week how much we explore it."
  • Stepfan Taylor is possibly Stanford's biggest prankster. He also produces funny videos under the alias "Kulabafi."

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 Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.

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