But Josh Nunes and the Stanford defense both found ways to make it work when there was zero margin for error. The final overtime score of this one, 54-48, was completely indicative of The Game That Defense Forgot - with the exception of two game-changing Cardinal stops.
Both Stanford and Arizona racked up exactly 617 total yards of offense. Stanford's attack, so putrid in its six-point output at Washington a week earlier, rolled up 54 points. That's a figure that must be taken with a grain of salt, though. The Wildcats' secondary was ranked 119th of 120 FBS teams last season, and might be even worse this year during the transition to a new head coach.
"It's ridiculous how razor thin we are [on defense]," Rich Rodriguez, the new head honcho, bemoaned after the game.
But how did the Cardinal defense, not thin by any stretch of the imagination and so powerful all season long, get abused to the tune of 491 passing yards and 48 Arizona points?
It was 2009 all over again: in front of plenty of empty seats, the Cardinal defense was sucking wind chasing explosive playmakers while its offense - helmed by a first-year quarterback - provided the bailout. Stanford Stadium had entered a time machine.
A Bizarre Contest
Each team's first drive set the tone for the rest of this bizarre contest, which could very possibly see 80 more total points than the Cardinal's next game, a showdown with defensive stalwart Notre Dame.
Stanford's initial formula against Arizona's undersized defense was simple enough. The Wildcats' linebackers weighed about as much as Cardinal wide receiver Ty Montgomery, so the power running game and hulking tight ends struck first. The Farm Boys' 11-play, 65-yard opening drive featured eight runs and a keep-away touchdown toss to Zach Ertz above a diminutive defender. In a match-up of Ants versus Elephants, Dumbo stomped first.
But top Stanford cornerback Terrence Brown suffered a concussion on Arizona's second retaliatory play. Wayne Lyons and true freshman Alex Carter would rotate into Brown's spot for the rest of the game, compounding an already disastrous match-up for the Cardinal secondary.
The Wildcats entered the game with the quintessential balanced passing attack: eight different receivers had racked up at least 10 catches on the year. Matt Scott's lethal accuracy and consistently perfect reads chained the Stanford secondary to the turf. The senior threw 69 times for 491 yards.
"He'll be fine," Rodriguez said. "We have ice for his arm."
The Cardinal secondary, meanwhile, may need more than ice to heal its confidence. Tight coverage on the Wildcats' spread attack was rare but ineffective even when present. Lyons was blanketing Terrence Miller when the tight end hauled in a perfect 10-yard pass to give Arizona a commanding 48-34 fourth quarter lead.
Scott's quick release and the successful 29-carry, 136-yard rushing effort of Ka'Deem Carey neutralized the Stanford pass rush by the second half. The formidable Cardinal unit was pinned to the ground, down for the count while absorbing vicious Arizona punches in increments of about 15 yards a time.
Then, a split-second before it was officially pronounced dead, the Stanford defense roared back to life. It was a turnaround that came straight out of a Rocky movie, and it started with a Shayne Skov explosion at the line of scrimmage. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Cardinal desperately needing a stop to give their offense a chance to tie, the senior stonewalled Carey on first down. Ben Gardner batted away Scott's pass on the next play, setting up a third-a-long that was finally conducive to defensive success.
After reeling in shock from the dizzying blur of the Wildcats' 100-play downfield attack, the Cardinal suddenly regained control of the line of scrimmage, just in time to re-assert themselves with one more trademarked clock-chewing drive.
Nunes regained possession at his own 21-yard line, trailing by a touchdown with 5:43 remaining. His running attack had bruised Arizona all afternoon and his gargantuan tight ends had been roaming free on play-action, but there was no way the equalizer would come easily with the game on the line. The Cardinal's gritty, 14-play, 79-yard drive walked a tightrope while bleeding five minutes off the clock.
The first defining play came on Nunes' 16-yard 3rd-and-7 shake-and-bake. His runs can't be considered "shocking" anymore, can they? The second arrived on 4th-and-9. David Shaw learned from his mistake a week earlier; he stayed away from the fade to Levine Toilolo and called Ertz's number instead. A 17-yard crossing reception set Nunes up for the tying 3-yard run with 45 seconds remaining. No. 6 had become the first Pac-12 quarterback since 2009 to rush for three scores in a game, and the Cardinal had forced overtime with the score knotted at 48.
In the extra period, the struggling Stanford secondary was taken out of the equation by a rejuvenated front. Henry Anderson's length again wreaked havoc with a passing lane. The six-foot-six defensive end batted a Scott pass high into the air, setting Chase Thomas up for the decisive interception. Two plays later, Stepfan Taylor capped his 31-carry, 148-yard performance by scampering into the end zone from 21 yards out.
Growth Taken With A Grain of Salt
It was an afternoon of growth for the Cardinal offense, which clearly learned from the plethora of mistakes that devastated the trek to Seattle. One of the fixes included an implementation of running game versatility. Taking a page out of Jim Harbaugh's and Greg Roman's San Francisco 49ers playbook, David Shaw and Pep Hamilton firmly and creatively established the running game against an undersized opponent this time around. Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, and Kelsey Young all provided a change of pace to Taylor after not recording a single carry against Washington.
Their work paid off. Young, perhaps Stanford's fastest player and product of Norco High's Todd Gerhart (Toby's father), bolted for the end zone like a flash of lightning on his 55-yard third quarter end-around touchdown run. Even if this had been a game of two-hand touch, Young would have scored.
The Cardinal's varied success on the ground meant that Arizona was toast downfield. Even beyond no. 1 receiver Ty Montgomery, who left late with a knee injury, Nunes had solid options downfield. Toilolo was completely unchecked on play-action downfield, and that much was reflected in his 5-catch, 141-yard output. Drew Terrell picked up Montgomery's slack with three critical catches for 58 yards late, while Jamal-Rashad Patterson's 54-yard reception accounted for 28.7 percent of the senior's career production.
Stanford's pass protection was again fantastic, giving Nunes the time to make pretty throws downfield and complete 61 percent of his passes (21-of-34, 360 yards), just above Shaw's goal of 60 percent. Outside of a few forced throws into coverage, Stanford's quarterback was remarkably efficient as he jumped from last to tenth in Pac-12 passer efficiency.
Now, The True Test
Next comes the true test, as Stanford now picks a fight with someone its own size. Caution was urged even before Saturday's game to not blow Nunes' numbers against a poor, undersized defense out of proportion. Notre Dame, which features a rigid front seven that rivals Stanford's, should provide an excellent barometer of improvement. The Cardinal's quarterback will be tasked with duplicating Saturday's efficiency against a much more formidable opponent on the road in a game that feels like a true tipping point. If the Irish do have a defensive weakness, it is their secondary, so some opportunities should be present for Nunes.
As for Stanford's defensive troubles, Derek Mason has to feel relieved that his unit will not have to face an offense as explosive as Arizona's until its November match-up at Oregon. The Cardinal were exposed vertically, and it wasn't pretty. But perhaps Skov foreshadowed the offense-defense bailout role reversal earlier in the week, when - in response to post-Washington criticisms of the offense - he pointed out that the Cardinal attack had bailed out the defense when it had given up 30-plus points several times in the past.
"That's how football works," he said. "Both sides of the ball have to support each other."
Four days after Skov's comments, the Stanford offense came to the rescue again in a game that avenged the Cardinal's 43-38 shootout loss at Arizona in 2009. And this time, they did it by racking up more yards than an Andrew Luck-led offense ever did.
Even if that production did come against a weak defense, that's still something to smile about.
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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