A couple of inches is all that separated Stepfan Taylor from the tying touchdown in overtime, all that separated the Cardinal from 5-1 through the first half of its season and all that will separate Stanford from the college football elite in 2012.
No. 17 Stanford (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) gave No. 7 Notre Dame (6-0) a fight but couldn’t get into the endzone on offense, couldn’t hold onto its late lead and couldn’t punch the ball home in a goal-line situation in overtime. All of that is upsetting in what could have been another statement game (albeit without conference implications) on the national level. All of that confirms what we expected of the Cardinal two months ago.
The Cardinal has enough to be very good in 2012. It just doesn’t have enough to be great.
We’ve forgotten that at times over the last, wild month. The epic upset of No. 2 USC brought back BCS hopes and the shootout win against Arizona brought back faith in Stanford’s offense; eerily similar road losses to Washington and the Irish brought us all back down to earth.
Despite that journey, Stanford’s overall performance through six games couldn’t be closer to what had been predicted for this season. The front seven is stout, the running game is steady and the tight ends are magnetic on offense, just as the Cardinal needed them to be. But at the same time, the secondary is imperfect, the receivers are insufficient and the quarterback is inconsistent.
I do believe that Josh Nunes is the right quarterback for Stanford, yet he has failed his only two road tests. Washington and Notre Dame both presented defensive challenges that he couldn’t overcome. His Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week performance against the Wildcats was electric, but it was sandwiched between consecutive losses in which he completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Another one of those at Berkeley for Big Game next Saturday would be upsetting to say the least. (For the full-time Nunes doubters out there, it would be a mistake to give the job to Brett Nottingham, who would have to go through the same road-trip learning curve that Nunes has struggled with and wouldn’t have enough games to grow comfortable in that role.)
Nunes hasn’t had very much help, remember. Catchable passes have been dropped in all six games by receivers, backs and tight ends alike, and the Cardinal seriously lacks weapons on the outside. Ty Montgomery didn’t do much in his first five games and couldn’t contribute on Saturday due to injury; Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson have gotten open but haven’t made the big plays needed to buoy Stanford’s offense.
As a result, every week is a crapshoot with this Cardinal team. It’s the epitome of the post-Andrew-Luck era: The talent is there, but not always.
We have no reason to be dissatisfied with Stanford through its first half, the harder portion of its schedule. Things would be much worse if the Cardinal had lost to USC and much better if it had beaten Washington or Notre Dame, but it didn’t. Stanford is definitely better than four of the teams remaining on its schedule (the Oregon schools on back-to-back weeks being the exceptions), so an eight- or nine-win season is definitely still in the cards.
There’s a good chance Stanford will drop out of the rankings on Sunday for the first time since September 2010. It doesn’t deserve to. The Cardinal is one of the best 25 programs in the country and came very close to a 5-1 record this weekend. But that’s college football.
There are a host of things Stanford could have done better against the Irish; its inability to capitalize on red-zone chances and defend the lob pass stand out. Against a Notre Dame team that, like the Cardinal, makes you pay for your mistakes, there just wasn’t enough for the win.
Stanford and its mirror image were separated by just a couple of inches on Saturday, and that’s all it took.
Joseph Beyda will be wearing a Stanford shirt every day this week in anticipation of Big Game. Suggest other ways to show his Cardinal pride at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyJBeyda.