COVID-19 Commotion: Football struggles to adjust to unexpected loss of Mills, Wedington

Oregon outlasts Stanford in season-opener, 35-14

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After a 4-8 season in which injuries were a story from the first game through the finale and 21 true freshmen appeared in at least one game, Stanford was determined to make a change in 2020. The team came up with the saying “no distractions, no excuses” and head coach David Shaw ’95 used those words to motivate the team.

“The best thing about it is — those words are not my words, that’s me, quoting our guys back to them,” Shaw said.

The pandemic has forced the team to “relentlessly adapt” and that was no more apparent than Saturday, when within two hours of game time, Stanford announced that senior quarterback Davis Mills, senior wide receiver Connor Wedington and junior defensive end Trey LaBounty would not be available for the game “due to COVID-19 testing results and contact tracing protocols.” 

When asked for comment, Stanford Athletics would only provide test results as of Nov. 1 — leaving it unclear whether any of the three tested positive or only had close contact with a positive case. The department stressed, however, that “football student-athletes are currently being tested nine times per week – six antigen tests per week and three PCR tests (Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday).”

While Shaw admitted that it was “tough to find that out a couple hours before the game,” he expected his team to compete. Still, without its starting quarterback, Stanford (0-1) was a long shot to beat No. 12 Oregon (1-0), and lost 35-14.

“It always sucks losing one of your one of your teammates, one of your brothers, especially that close to game time,” said fifth-year inside linebacker Curtis Robinson. “I’m not going to pretend like we didn’t know that it was happening.”

Junior receiver Mike Wilson (above) had only 35 receiving yard despite being targeted multiple times. The Cardinal only found the end zone twice during the game. (Photo: ANDY NELSON/The Register-Guard)

If there was a silver lining, it was that the often maligned offensive line and sophomore running backs were allowed to shine. Stanford’s first five plays were on the ground and sophomore running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat showed why the coaching staff has been so excited for the ground game to make strides this year. 

“Like Coach says, ‘no excuses, no distractions,’” Jones said. 

Stanford’s offense drove inside the 35 yard line seven times but came away with just 14 points. On both occasions, Jones ran the ball into the end zone behind the reinvigorated offensive line. Jones ran for 100 yards on 20 carries and caught two passes for 22 yards while Peat accounted for 93 yards on six touches with a long of 73 yards. 

Just last year, Shaw took plays out of the run game, thinking that it was unfair to task the then-freshmen on the offensive line with the added looks, but on Saturday the unit was a bright spot. Led by senior captain Drew Dalman at center and senior right tackle Foster Sarell, a group of four sophomores including left tackle Walter Rouse, right guard Branson Bragg, left guard Barrett Miller and guard Jake Hornibrook the offensive line paved the way for 197 rushing yards. 

In 2019, Stanford averaged just 105.5 rushing yards per game.

“Our offensive line played great tonight and they were opening up great holes,” Jones said. “We have the pieces, now just gotta keep pushing forward.”

“I anticipate us being one of the better offensive lines in America over the next couple years,” Shaw said. 

Nevertheless, with Stanford down 28-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and with a first-and-goal at the three yard line, there were four straight passing play calls, including an offensive pass interference, before fifth year kicker Jet Toner missed his fourth field goal of the game. 

“[The offensive line] did great all night,” Jones said. “I think if we were in that situation and had that opportunity we would have definitely pushed it in.”

“It was pretty frustrating not being able to score and getting down there all the time,” Jones said. “Just getting down there is great but we got to finish it.”

Despite opening the game with a three-and-out, the Stanford defensive line was not strong enough to stop Oregon’s potent offense. (Photo: ANDY NELSON/The Register-Guard)

Before Saturday, Toner had made 47-of-57 career field goals with a long of 51 yards. After the game, Shaw reiterated his support for his kicker, who was coming off an injury that kept him out of the final five games last season. In the pregame, Toner was hitting from 54 yards but missed from 48, 40, 35 and 27 yards during the game.

In an empty Autzen Stadium, junior quarterback Jack West made his second career start and was much improved. West completed 13-of-19 passes for 154 yards. 

Freshman quarterback Tanner McKee, recruited in the same class as West but in his first year at Stanford after two years on a mission in Brazil, also came in for two drives and completed three of seven passes.

“Our guys didn’t hesitate tonight,” Shaw said. “They came out on fire, they came out and Jack played really well, we marched right down the field. That’s a great sign for what we have to come.”

“Jack’s had a bit of a fire in his belly since the game last year against UCLA,” Shaw added. 

Still, Shaw saw four or five missed connections in the passing game, which he attributed to missing his starter. Junior wide receiver Simi Fehoko led the receivers with 88 yards on just three receptions to continue his torrid, record-breaking yards per catch rate. 

Oregon’s first-time starting quarterback out-dueled both West and McKee. Tyler Shough finished 17-of-26 for 227 yards with a touchdown and an interception. 

Between Paulson Adebo’s decision to opt out and an injury to sophomore cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, junior Ethan Bonner was forced to be the number one corner in his first career start. On the other side, sophomore cornerback Salim Turner-Muhammad also made his first career start. 

Oregon Ducks’ running back CJ Verdell ran for 105 yards on 20 carries, despite the Cardinal defenses efforts. Stanford fifth-year safety Malik Antoine ended the night with four tackles. (Photo: ANDY NELSON/The Register-Guard)

Although sophomore inside linebacker Levani Damuni left the game early with an injury, on the field he had more impact than anyone else on the defense. In his freshman year, Damuni won the Greg Piers Award, given to the Most Outstanding Special Teams Scout Team player and did not debut until the finale against Notre Dame. On Saturday, he came up with both an interception and a fumble recovery.

“I personally thought that Levani took [a turnover-oriented mindset] to the field better than anybody else today,” Robinson said. “it’s going to be a matter of getting everyone else on the defense that’s on the field at the time to have that same mentality.”

Overall, however, the defense did not do enough. Oregon finished 9-of-11 on third down. Stanford’s offense was not as successful, finishing just 4-of-13, and did not score after either turnover. Last year, Oregon did not lose when winning points off turnovers. 

Where Stanford could not take advantage of short fields, Oregon had touchdown drives of 87, 96, 75, 80 and 73 yards. Despite a starting offensive line with just six combined starts, and replacing 222 starts, Oregon rushed for 269 rushing yards. CJ Verdell ran for 105 yards on 20 carries and Travis Dye amassed 78 yards on six carries, but one of the surprises was Shough’s 85 yards as Stanford again struggled with mobile quarterbacks. 

“It’s something that hurt us again,” Robinson said, who led the team in tackles with six. 

Shaw is unsure if Mills, Wedington and LaBounty will miss next week when Stanford hosts Colorado. 

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a staff writer in the sports section and a Biology major from Berkeley, California. He is believed to be the only Stanford undergraduate not on the football team to attend a home game in 2020. His work can also be found at Just Women's Sports, DashSportsTV, and SportsPac12. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.