STANFORD -- San Jose State pushed Stanford to the brink Friday night. But in the end, the Cardinal defense was the difference in a 20-17 season-opening victory over the Spartans at Stanford Stadium.
After a listless third quarter in which it yielded two long touchdown drives, Stanford shut down SJSU in the fourth. The performance allowed quarterback Josh Nunes to win his first start in place of Andrew Luck.
"We have a lot to clean up. ... We were close to doing a lot of good things," Nunes said.
Said Stanford coach David Shaw, "If we had executed a little better, there should have been a bigger difference on the scoreboard."
The Cardinal used its power running game to take a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter. But instead of wilting, as they did last year, the Spartans rallied.
Led by impressive first-year quarterback David Fales, SJSU dominated the third quarter and eventually caught the Cardinal, forging a 17-17 tie.
The momentum changed late in the quarter when SJSU tailback DeLeon Eskridge fumbled at the Spartans' 38.
Stanford wasted little time moving into the red zone and eventually to the 3-yard line. But after an incomplete pass on third down, the Cardinal settled for a 20-yard field goal by Jordan Williamson -- and a 20-17 lead.
The lead seemed to energize Stanford's defense, which awoke from its midgame slumber to sack Fales twice and force SJSU to punt.
The Cardinal missed a chance to
SJSU took over at the 15 but again went nowhere as Stanford's defense continued to control the action.
The Spartans had one more chance, taking possession in the final minutes. But Fales' desperation, fourth-down pass was intercepted by Stanford safety Ed Reynolds with 1:10 remaining.
"Shoulda, coulda, woulda -- we should have won. There's a bunch of brokenhearted kids in (the locker room)," San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre said. "They played their butts off. But Stanford did enough to win."
Nunes zipped his first pass to receiver Ty Montgomery for a 9-yard gain but otherwise spent most of Stanford's opening drive handing off.
The 13-play possession featured 10 runs -- several of which involved Stanford using extra offensive linemen -- and ended with Taylor scoring on a fourth-down leap from the 1-yard line.
The Spartans did nothing right on their first possession, starting with a poor kickoff return by Tyler Ervin that forced SJSU to start from its 10. Then receiver Chandler Jones dropped a second-down pass, setting up third-and-long. The Spartans lost 2 yards, punted, and Stanford took over at midfield.
Six plays later -- and with help from a face-mask penalty on the Spartans -- Nunes threw his first career touchdown pass, a perfectly placed 11-yard toss to receiver Drew Terrell in back right corner of the end zone.
Shaw was impressed with the performance of Nunes, who finished 16 of 26 for 125 yards and one touchdown.
"He played great and got us into the right plays," Shaw said. "I'm very proud of him. He never flinched. He didn't play like a first-year starter."
A 14-0 lead was exactly the start Stanford wanted -- and San Jose State dreaded.
The Spartans settled down midway through the first quarter, but they wasted an opportunity when receiver Jabari Carr dropped a deep pass from Fales after getting behind the Stanford secondary. The drive eventually sputtered, and freshman Austin Lopez kicked a 38-yard field goal with 10 minutes left in the second quarter.
Williamson drilled a career-long 46-yard field goal on the final play of the first half to give the Cardinal a 17-3 lead.
The cushion did not last long. The Spartans opened the second half with a 78-yard touchdown drive in which they did what they wanted, when they wanted. It featured a series of completions by Fales and culminated with a 3-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Blake Jurich.
The touchdown was SJSU's first in a season opener since 2008, after three consecutive years of scoring only a field goal.