By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Stepfan Taylor raced 21 yards for a touchdown in overtime to lift the Stanford football team to an improbable 54-48 victory over visiting Arizona on Saturday in a old-fashioned Pac-12 shootout.
Taylor's game-winning score came two plays after Chase Thomas intercepted a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Henry Anderson on Arizona's first possession in overtime.
Taylor's romp culminated a wild affair in which both teams gained 617 yards in total offense. Arizona threw for 491 yards while Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes threw for a career-best 360 yards on 21-of-34 passing and scored three touchdowns in addition for throwing for two.
The Cardinal (2-1, 4-1), which travels to Notre Dame for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, trailed by 14 points with less than seven minutes to play.
"Being down 14, he kept his poise and drove us down the field," Taylor said of Nunes. "He had a lot of passes those last two drives and he was converting them."
Taylor raced for 142 yards and scored twice as No. 18 Stanford remained unbeaten all-time on October 6.
"I definitely have confidence now," Nunes said. "The guys up front did want they needed to do as well as the guys downfield."
Nunes, who showed his mettle in helping Stanford beat USC earlier in the season, came up with the best statistical game of his career.
"I made a lot of throws this week that I didn't last week," Nunes said of his effort in a loss to Washington. "I applied a few things I worked on in practice."
It wasn't just Nunes either. Tight end Levine Toilolo also responded with a big game after a less-than-stellar effort in the loss to the Huskies.
Toilolo caught five passes for 141 yards, including a 12-yard scoring reception.
"We always talk about winning one-on-one matchups," Toilolo said. "I just have to run my route. I probably should have come down with more of them. Josh put some great balls up there."
What Nunes' did coach learn about the quarterback starting for the fifth time in his collegiate career?
"It's not what we learned, it's what other people learned," head coach David Shaw said.
But it's also about what Stanford learned about itself. About how it could face a Wildcat offense that carved it up for 617 yards and make two vital defensive stops.
The biggest stop may not have seemed like it at the time, but when Stanford forced the Wildcats to go three-and-out with 5:43 left in the fourth quarter, everything changed.
"That was the difference in the game," Shaw said.
Arizona, with quarterback Matt Scott (45 of 69 for 491 yards) setting school records in completions and attempts, had frolicked to five touchdowns on six second-half possessions out of the hurry-up spread offense conceived by first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. None of those drives even took three minutes.
But the crucial three plays went thusly: Shayne Skov stuffed Ka'Deem Carey on first down, Ben Gardner batted down a pass on second, and Scott overthrew a receiver on third.
That's called, 'new life,' and Stanford took advantage after a Wildcat punt by grinding out a 14-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 4:58 off the clock and left Arizona (3-3, 0-3) with no time to respond.
The pressure on that drive was enormous. The Cardinal dug itself out of a second-and-20 after a holding call, and put the ball into the hands of players like running back Ricky Seale and receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson - players who have not been given many opportunities, but made the most of them Saturday.
There was a third-and-7 from the 50 when Nunes cut inside two defenders for first-down yardage after finding no receivers open. And there was the fourth-and-8 from the Arizona 20 when Nunes hit Zach Ertz for 17 yards - the tight end clutching the ball with two hands to his chest to avoid a turnover.
Nunes, as he had done when he cut the deficit to 48-41 with 6:34 left, kept the ball on the option to score on a short-yardage touchdown run. His scoring runs covered 2, 1, and 3 yards. His touchdown passes covered 11 and 12 yards to Ertz and Toilolo, respectively.
"If you had told me a year ago we'd call multiple run plays for him, I'd have laughed at you," Shaw said.
But it was all part of the fabric revealed playmakers at every turn, including Toilolo and Kelsey Young, who scored on a 55-yard touchdown run on an end-around. This was especially true in overtime, which conjured some unpleasant memories from the Cardinal's previous extra-time foray - a 41-38 loss to Oklahoma State in January's Fiesta Bowl.
This one seemed to exorcise those demons, or at least temper them a bit.
Arizona, taking possession first, gained a quick first down to the 13. But the series then took a Stanford turn: Jordan Richards stopped receiver Richard Morrison in space for no gain, and a blitzing Usua Amanam tipped a pass that fell incomplete. Then came the decisive defensive play - an interception in a scrum by linebacker Thomas after Anderson deflected a pass with his head.
What was Thomas thinking?
"Catch it!" he said. "Make a big play. The team needed it."
Now requiring only a field goal to win, Shaw vowed to stay conservative.
"We were in field-goal range and we were not going to put the ball in the air in those situations," he said.
And so it went. Taylor carried for four yards on first down. But on second, Taylor found a huge hole off right guard, burst through it, and was sprung by a final block from right guard Khalil Wilkes for the touchdown -- and the victory.
"We stuck together as a team and had trust in each other," said Taylor. "We didn't need to go out there and start pointing fingers."
In a game that featured a combined 1,234 yards, 65 first downs (38 by Arizona), a fourth-quarter comeback, and the emergence of Nunes, Shaw found even more significance to the victory.
"We needed to find a way to battle," he said. "We needed to test our character. It's great to be tested."
It's even greater to be tested and win.