Lombardi's Look Back: Washington State

This piece was originally set to be published Monday afternoon, but seeing Alex Smith's record-breaking accuracy in Jim Harbaugh's and Greg Roman's San Francisco 49ers attack necessitated some added thoughts.

Smith completed 18-of-19 passes (94.7 percent), setting an NFL record for completion percentage with a minimum of 15 attempts. The biggest takeaway: none of his successful throws were particularly difficult. They were comprised of receiver out patterns, backfield check-downs, and the occasional tight end seam attack. Smith isn't a world-beater, but he was able to post unprecedented numbers by simply taking what the Arizona Cardinals defense game him.

This is precisely what Stanford's offense failed to do Saturday. By stacking the box against the running game, Washington State offered the Cardinal passing attack the world. But Josh Nunes and co. rejected their gifts.

Nunes' 7-for-15, 136-yard performance doesn't tell half the story of Stanford's offensive incompetence in its ugly 24-17 win over the lowly Cougars. A 70-yard fluke - a busted coverage opportunity that almost certainly won't exist in a fair fight - saved the Cardinal from one of the most embarrassing home defeats in school history. Mike Leach's cellar dweller, the same group that lost to pathetic Colorado at home, was a hair away from derailing a Stanford team stocked with BCS talent on the road.

Excepting their upcoming meeting with the dreadful Buffaloes, it's unlikely the Cardinal will enjoy a defensive lapse as big as the one that allowed Jamal-Rashad Patterson's long second quarter touchdown. Without it, the numbers are horrifying: Nunes finished 2-of-6 for a grand total of 4 passing yards in the first half and 6-of-14 for 66 on the game. And this was not one of those contests where rushing success curtailed aerial numbers.

Far Below Average
Washington State's defense entered the contest giving up over 462 yards per game. Stanford fell 206 yards short of average, and they had to scratch and claw their way just to conjure up that pathetic amount. A disturbing trend has become an expected regularity: Nunes cannot consistently find open receivers in the short-to-intermediate range passing game, either with his eyes or with his arm.

The Cougars recognized this early on and responded by selling out against the run, stonewalling Stepfan Taylor to the tune of 2.8 yards per rush. They handed check-down passes and gigantic tight end action to the Cardinal on a silver platter. Unlike Smith on Monday night, though, Nunes was not a taker.

Like the 49ers game, this was not a contest that required a quarterback to demonstrate razor-sharp accuracy by zipping the ball into tight windows. Stanford's chance was about exploiting a marked size disadvantage with standard throws downfield. Case in point: wide open Cardinal tight ends hauled in 11 passes for 216 yards in last season's blitz of Washington State.

This year: one catch, 20 yards.

That chunk came on a third quarter throw out of the shotgun to Zach Ertz. It was followed by another healthy 23-yard Drew Terrell reception, also out of the 'gun. These flashes of throwing success came when Stanford was lined up in a passing formation. But nothing good came when the Cardinal run game could have truly used it, when Nunes was crouched down under center and the run was begging for a legitimate counter-threat.

With such a balance absent, all of Washington State's respect vanished. Never mind the fact that true freshman Andrus Peat played the entire second half, with David Yankey shifted to guard and Khalil Wilkes on the bench. Never mind the fact that the Cougars were being gashed to the tune of 4.4 yards per carry coming in. Never mind the fact that Stanford did have a spurt of early rushing success, spearheaded by Anthony Wilkerson's 17-yard off-tackle run (for some reason, his only carry). Once the Cougars had no reason to concentrate on any semblance of a passing threat downfield, Stanford's rushing game was dead.

Even creative wrinkles of the Cardinal's ground attack, like a Kelsey Young reverse, were suffocated by a box gambling on the hand-off. Until Stanford can demonstrate the ability to consistently and successfully pass out of a running formation, David Shaw's offense will remain stuck on a treadmill.

Through two-thirds of the 2012 season, Nunes has not shown he is good enough to consistently hit his freakishly large targets downfield. His 52.8 percent completion percentage now officially makes him the Pac-12's least accurate passer. Perhaps most disturbingly, No. 6 has demonstrated an inability to scan the entire field make the check-down read that is crucial in the context of Stanford's ground-and-pound offense.

Negative Plays
A season after catching 34 passes for 282 yards, Ryan Hewitt has hauled in only three passes for 19 yards. The fullback blames opponents' newfound focus on his now-famous "Spider 3Y Banana" play-action flat route as the primary reason for this drop in production, but blame also has to fall on the man under center. If Nunes' primary target isn't wide open, it's almost always over - despite what has been solid Stanford pass protection. Even Saturday's vanilla gameplan should have been enough for the Cardinal to dominate a Washington State team that surrendered 35 points to Colorado, but the Farm Boys just aren't utilizing the enviable talent that should be making passes easier for their quarterback, and not more difficult.

When Shaw selected Nunes as his starting quarterback, he cited his ability to avoid "negative plays." While his decent interception total (six) and low sack count demonstrate this ability to an extent, it's apparent that those two factors are an extremely narrow definition of what constitutes a "negative play." There's a lot of potential easy yardage that Stanford misses out on whenever Nunes causes Ertz or Terrell to go into a slide for a catch that would otherwise net solid yards after the reception. Those missed opportunities, along with failures to see Taylor wide open in the flat on third down and airmailed throws above triple coverage, should be tabulated as negative plays, too.

Only two of Nunes' eight games have been statistically respectable. One of those came against Duke, drubbed 48-7 by Florida State this weekend. The other came against an Arizona defense that was terrible then and not much better now. The anemic Cardinal offense may get another fools' gold performance this weekend against a bad team in Boulder, but Shaw has not indicated that Brett Nottingham will get an opportunity. Instead, Kevin Hogan will see an expanded role - bu the jury is still out regarding whether or not his downfield passing abilities are sufficient.

Offensive ineptitude has already sucked much life out of what is now a half-empty Stanford Stadium. That energy must be restored, or the edge that the Cardinal worked so hard to gain since Jim Harbaugh's arrival will vanish with it.

Defensively Speaking
Stanford's offensive malaise is rightly the Cardinal's biggest cause of concern, but the the monstrous defensive front seven continues to live up to preseason expectations. Stanford broke a school record with 10 sacks, and every one of those takedowns was needed to overcome what was almost a crippling offensive performance.

Henry Anderson ended the contest by slamming Cougar quarterback Jeff Tuel to the ground with only seconds left on the clock. He joined Usua Amanam (2.5 sacks), Ben Gardner (1.5), Trent Murphy (2), Alex Debniak (1.5), and Josh Mauro (1.5) on the sack list. Amanam was also excellent out of his nickel back role in pass protection, but the rest of the secondary struggled. Tuel finished 43-for-60 for 401 yards as Washington almost overcame 15 Stanford tackles for loss and negative 16 rushing yards.

Freshman cornerback Alex Carter looked particularly vulnerable in Stanford's secondary, although the Cardinal looked uncomfortable as a whole on the third level. Perhaps the defense's first reliance on a dime package this season contributed to the struggles. Ronnie Harris, Devon Carrington, and even true freshman Zach Hoffpauir saw significant playing time. It's entirely possible that Derek Mason used Saturday's game to begin expanding his defensive rotation in preparation for the November 17 test at Oregon, where interchangeable lines of fresh, speedy troops will be needed.

Ironically, it was the secondary that provided one of the game-saving plays. Ed Reynolds' fourth quarter interception return for a touchdown gave the Cardinal a commanding 24-10 lead that would (barely) hold up. It was Stanford's tenth pick of the season, a year after the squad intercepted only seven balls through all 13 games.

Still, Stanford's defense has struggled against the two spread passing offenses that it's faced this season. The Cardinal's pass rush saved the day on the scoreboard this time around, but the Farm Boys would be happy if they never had to see a Leach-style offense again. They'd also be happy with some possession support from their own offense, which is making life exponentially more difficult against the gun-slinging attacks of the Pac-12.


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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