There is a different universe where senior quarterback Davis Mills completes his first full season as the Stanford starting quarterback with a berth to the Granddaddy of them All. As it stands, Mills has played in a season’s worth of collegiate games — 12 — not including two passes thrown against UC Davis in 2018.
The 13th game, in this universe, would be a reward (call it a bowl game) for a successful season.
There is no such universe. Stanford (3-2, 3-2 Pac-12) is bowl eligible, but will decline postseason opportunities because in this universe there is a pandemic that has kept Stanford on the road since Dec. 1. So, when Stanford steps into the Rose Bowl on Saturday, the season will come to an end against UCLA (3-3, 3-3 Pac-12), another team that has come to the same conclusion and will not seek a bowl game.
For Stanford, it will be coming full circle. The loss to UCLA in Stanford Stadium in 2019 ended an 11-year Cardinal win streak in the series and started a 1-7 slide against all competition that extended through the first two games of this season. UCLA is also the new home of Obi Eboh ’20, who was one of a number of seniors that entered the transfer portal last year. And Wednesday was signing day. Four years after Stanford signed three of its top six recruits ever (according to 247Sports), Stanford signed its lowest ranked class in head coach David Shaw’s tenure.
It will also be the reinstatement of one of Stanford’s longest running rivalries. Before the season, Stanford was not scheduled to face either UCLA or USC for the first time since 1945, but now will have a date with the Bruins on Saturday.
For Stanford, the game will make some history. Stanford has never ended its season at UCLA. Sure, Stanford has ended its regular season at UCLA, most recently in 2012 when the Cardinal won 35-17 in the Rose Bowl and six days later won 27-24 in the Pac-12 championship game played at Stanford Stadium. Stanford has also ended its season in the Rose Bowl 15 times, which is tied for the second most of any Pac-12 team. But Stanford has never played its last game on the schedule at UCLA.
“As much as many of us in our hearts would love to potentially play the bowl game, I don’t see how we could do it,” Shaw said. “It did not seem practical.”
After spending a week in the Seattle area and a week in Corvallis, Stanford is now training at Santa Barbara City College’s La Playa Stadium. Meetings have been moved to around noon and practices soon after, giving Stanford’s players time in the morning and evening to “wander around and see Santa Barbara,” in the words of senior fullback Houston Heimuli.
“It feels good being down here in Santa Barbara, enjoying the beach a little bit,” said fifth-year free safety Malik Antoine, who also rated the hotel as one of the best.
While practicing at a postcard location has made the end of an extended three-week road trip more palatable, there is no denying that the situation is difficult.
“It hasn’t been super easy,” said senior tight end Tucker Fisk. “It’s not the most fun traveling around, especially during COVID without things to do and moving our stuff from hotel to hotel.”
“We have this weird dynamic of, you have your brothers that you’re with 24/7 constantly, but also have to stay far away and can’t hang out with them,” said junior wide receiver Simi Fehoko.
Shaw credits both Assistant Athletics Director of Football Operations & Student Athlete Well-Being Callie Dale and Senior Associate Athletics Director of Football Operations and Player Programs Matt Doyle with making the logistics work, and noted that the two have also been recording details to look back on in 10 years.
“We feel like we’ve been on a three-week bowl trip as it is,” Shaw said. “Now, having the opportunity to play UCLA down here in Southern California, staying right by the beach where guys can spend some free time feels somewhat like a bowl game.”
The reasons Stanford missed a bowl game last year for the first time under Shaw are far different from this year. Last year, it was due to poor play. This year, it was because of conversations within the team and the administration — conversations that Shaw would not let himself be a part of until Stanford clinched its eligibility. Over the last three weeks and three wins, Stanford has done just that. Most notably, end of game execution has improved substantially, which Shaw mainly attributed to experience.
“You do the right things over and over again, and at critical times, you don’t get anxious, you don’t get nervous, you just go up there and do what you prepared to do,” Shaw said. “Last year, second half of the year, especially with all the young guys playing, there were spurts we played really well. But there were also times when we made critical errors and lack of understanding errors.”
Another difference has been Stanford’s ability to control the clock with the run game. Still, Shaw will be quick to say “time of possession means absolutely nothing.”
“But if you can have time of possession and score touchdowns and make the other team kick field goals, now it’s just math,” he said.
“I think that teams realize that when they’re out there, they need to take advantage of their possession and score fast,” Antoine said. “Teams do get a little more urgent because they recognize that each drive matters.”
Stanford will certainly want to keep the ball out of “difference maker” Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s hands. Last year, he threw for 192 yards and two scores and ran for 66 more against the Cardinal.
“The hard part is it’s not like he’s just a runner, he can beat with his arm too,” Shaw said.
Improving its per-game rushing average from 105 yards per game to 133, Stanford has gone back to its old tendencies. The development of the offensive line and its three starting sophomores has made Shaw openly wondering what Stanford could have been like with a full season and his players are too.
“We’ve kind of started to go back into, like old school Stanford get-after-it football, a lot of power, a lot of gritty, downhill kind of schemes,” Heimuli said. “With coach Shaw’s sentiments, what would we be in Week 11, where we’ve had all this time to just iron out the few wrinkles that we have.”
“I’m sort of with Coach Shaw in the aspect of, I’d love to see where we would have been in a Game 11 or something like that, where we could actually be playing at our full potential,” Fehoko said. “We’re still chasing our best. We’re trying to get that and hopefully this week we can show you what we’re really made of.”
After the season, Stanford can start to worry about who will be coming back. The one year changes made by the NCAA mean that this year will not count against anyone’s eligibility.
“I think a lot of us are feeling good about the progress that we’ve made this season,” said senior outside linebacker Gabe Reid. “We’re hopeful about moving forward with this team next year.”
Kickoff is set for 4 p.m on Saturday.