STANFORD, Calif. — With the season more than halfway over, quarterback Josh Nunes has shown little progress in his development. The wide receivers are hardly creating any separation, and a young offensive line is still plagued by inconsistency.
If not for a dominant defense, Stanford's Pac-12 North Division hopes might already be dashed.
Ed Reynolds returned an interception for a touchdown and No. 19 Stanford sacked Jeff Tuel a school-record 10 times to overcome a sloppy offensive effort in a 24-17 victory over lowly Washington State on Saturday.
Cardinal coach David Shaw said his offense played to "probably about 70-75 percent of our capabilities." While he praised his team's effort, he wasted no time letting his players know how he felt about the performance, which will need to be far better with matchups against No. 2 Oregon and No. 7 Oregon State on the horizon.
"The first jump happened about 15 minutes ago," Shaw said. "We don't need screaming and yelling and going crazy. What it is is putting our foot down collectively and saying, 'We're going to play our best football.' It's the bottom line. We can play better. It's time to stop saying we can play better, it's time for us to play better."
Washington State (2-6, 0-5), the only winless team in Pac-12 play, allowed season lows with 256 yards of total offense and 136 yards passing - the kind of stats that will make Stanford steam.
Reynolds stepped in front of Tuel's pass for the safety's fourth interception - and second returned for a score - this season early in the fourth quarter to bail out the Cardinal offense again. He ran 25 yards untouched into the end zone to give Stanford (6-2, 4-1) a two-touchdown lead, highlighting another swarming defensive effort that held the Cougars to minus-16 yards rushing and forced new coach Mike Leach's aerial offense to throw 60 times.
"The type of team we are, we're not built to go run up the score on teams," said defensive end Ben Gardner, who had 1 1/2 sacks and 2 1/2 of Stanford's 15 tackles for loss. "So we have to show up every week and bring our 'A' game. It's something that we've struggled with."
Mostly on the other side of the ball.
Nunes completed 7 of 15 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown and Ryan Hewitt ran for a short score. A week after running for a career-high 189 yards against rival California, Stepfan Taylor was held to 58 yards on 21 carries.
Washington State had 25 first downs to only 12 for Stanford, which converted 5 of 12 third downs and only put together one complete drive all game. Shaw also spelled Nunes with backup Kevin Hogan on five consecutive plays - part of a "designed package," he said, for the mostly read-option quarterback - between the third and fourth quarters.
"The defense did a lot of great things all night getting after the quarterback," said Nunes, a redshirt junior charged with the difficult task of replacing No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck this season. "We have to give these guys a break every now and then."
Tuel led a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kristoff Williams with 6:29 to play to bring Washington State within a touchdown. Stanford managed two first downs before punting the ball back and giving the Cougars another chance.
Marquess Wilson made a leaping 42-yard catch to put Washington State at the Stanford 23. And on fourth-and-21, Bobby Ratliffe caught a 25-yard pass from Tuel at the 9.
Then Usua Amanam pressured Tuel into a 15-yard intentional grounding penalty and an automatic 10-second runoff. With Washington State looking for one final heave to the end zone, Henry Anderson planted Tuel into the ground as time expired.
"There was some miscommunication between me and Marquess," said Tuel, who threw for 401 yards and two touchdowns, completing 43 of 60 passes on mostly short outs that Stanford allowed. "But bottom line: I can't take a sack in that situation."
Both teams had few offensive highlights in this one.
Tuel hit Dominique Williams for a 43-yard completion, then went to him again when he floated a 3-yard TD pass to the corner of the end zone that put the Cougars ahead 7-3 midway through the second quarter.
The rare lead for Washington State this season didn't last long.
Just 47 seconds later, Nunes found Jamal-Rashad Patterson on a broken play with the cornerback blitzing and no safety help over the top. Patterson caught the short pass and sprinted down the sideline for a 70-yard touchdown that put Stanford back in front 10-7 on its longest play of the season.
Stanford took advantage of a pass interference call on Anthony Carpenter that extended the opening drive of the third quarter. Hewitt bulldozed through the line for a 1-yard TD run - the fullback's first of the season - on third down before Reynolds intercepted Tuel's pass to put Stanford ahead 24-10 with 10:43 remaining.
"We played well, we played hard, we played a complete game. Stanford played with a little more maturity than we did," Leach said. "They had the sense and expectation of when to go for the kill."