It's depressing not to win, but that's football. —Matt Scott
STANFORD, Calif. — Rich Rodriguez's up-tempo offense racked up more yards in the air against Stanford than any team had in almost three years. Even with all that offense, Rodriguez still headed home the same way Arizona has the past three weeks.
Winless in the Pac-12 Conference.
Matt Scott's record-setting performance ended when Chase Thomas intercepted his tipped pass in overtime, and the Wildcats wasted a two-touchdown lead in a 54-48 loss at No. 18 Stanford on Saturday.
"It's depressing not to win, but that's football," Scott said. "I don't look at how many points I need. I want to score on every drive."
For most of the afternoon, it seemed as though Arizona did.
Scott completed 45 of 69 passes — both school records — for 491 yards and three touchdowns. Henry Anderson deflected his final pass that Thomas intercepted, and Stepfan Taylor ran for a 21-yard touchdown two plays later to end a week of second-guessing quarterback Josh Nunes with a wild celebration in the Cardinal (4-1, 2-1) side of the north end zone.
Arizona (3-3, 0-3) amassed 617 total yards — same as Stanford — but lost its third straight game.
"Matt is a stud. He threw the ball well. We just needed to make one more play," Rodriguez said. "There's nothing to be ashamed of."
Nunes threw for a career-high 360 yards and two touchdowns and ran for three more scores to rally the Cardinal and begin to erase doubts about whether he's the right man to replace Andrew Luck.
Nunes completed 21 of 34 passes, scrambled for first downs and — most importantly — offset Scott's record-setting afternoon with a strong performance of his own.
"This is the kind of game that we needed," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We needed to fight. We needed to battle. We needed to be into it in the fourth quarter. We needed to be down. We needed to fight back, just to test our character. We believe that we have that kind of character to be able to fight back even when we're down, but it's great when you get tested and respond to that challenge."
The Wildcats often scored at will and looked more like the team that beat Oklahoma State to start 3-0 than the one that lost to Oregon and Oregon State the previous two weeks. Facing its third straight ranked opponent, Arizona's aerial attack shredded Stanford's defense in a way few have the past few seasons.
Arizona became the first team to eclipse 400 yards passing against the Cardinal since Oklahoma in the 2009 Sun Bowl. The Sooners threw for 418 yards in that 31-27 win over the Cardinal.
Too bad for Arizona its defense couldn't hold up when it counted.
Nunes ran his second short touchdown to trim Arizona's lead to 48-41 with 6:34 remaining. The Cardinal held the Wildcats to only their third three-and-out on the next possession, and Nunes led a drive that will help ease concerns about Luck's successor.
The redshirt junior ran for 16 yards on third-and-7 from midfield, threw 17 yards to tight end Zach Ertz on fourth-and-9 from Arizona's 20 and ran for the tying touchdown with 45 seconds left in regulation.
"I made a lot of throws this week that I didn't make last week," said Nunes, adding that he worked on improving his velocity. "It's not like I can't make these throws."
This time, Stanford's offense showed some fight from the start.
Taylor, who finished with 142 yards rushing and two touchdowns, ran for 35 yards on seven carries before Nunes lofted an 11-yard touchdown pass to Ertz in the corner of the end zone to give the Cardinal a 7-0 lead on the game's first possession.
While the offense finally found its rhythm, Stanford's defense struggled to slow down Arizona's up-tempo style.
Ka'Deem Carey ran for 13 yards for the first of his three touchdowns, and John Bonano kicked a 34-yard field goal to give the Wildcats a 10-7 lead later in the second quarter.
Nunes stayed steady and sharp, finding Levine Toilolo for a 12-yard touchdown pass to put Stanford back ahead 14-10. Bonano kicked a 33-yard field goal to slice Stanford's lead to 14-13 at half.
The pace picked up even more following the break.
Scott threaded a 27-yard strike to Terrence Miller inches short of the goal line that set up Carey's short touchdown run to put Arizona in front 20-14 less than 2 minutes into the third quarter.
Although the Cardinal prefer to play grind-it-out games and control the clock, Arizona simply wouldn't let them.
The teams traded touchdowns for most of the second half until Jourdon Grandon stripped Ty Montgomery after a 16-yard catch early in the fourth quarter. Arizona recovered and took over at Stanford's 45.
Scott quickly led the offense down field and hooked up with Miller for a 10-yard completion that gave the Wildcats a 48-34 lead — the biggest either side had all afternoon. Scott nearly surpassed the school passing record set by Willie Tuitama, who threw for 510 yards in a 48-41 win over Washington on Oct. 27, 2007.
Rodriguez opted to run the clock out with 45 seconds remaining from Arizona's own 19 with two timeouts and play for overtime, saying he "didn't want to make a mistake down there."
"Nobody is happy right now," Rodriguez added. "The effort is as good as I've hoped. We just need to work on executing."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP