Through the first three quarters of Stanford’s home opener against Colorado, senior quarterback Davis Mills threw the ball 28 times. In the final 15 minutes, he threw the ball 28 more times as Stanford closed the gap in a respectable, 35-32 loss.
For Mills, the entire week was back loaded. From Nov. 7-12, he was in isolation due to a false positive COVID-19 test and conference protocol errors. His only practice during the week preceding his first game of his senior season was 45 minutes on Nov. 13.
Still, Mills went ahead and played “relatively well,” in the words of head coach David Shaw ’95. For the game, Mills completed 31 of 56 passes for 327 yards and one touchdown, adding his first career touchdown on the ground. In his prior six starts, he had only thrown for more yards once — against this week’s opponent. Last year, Mills set the school record with 504 yards in a losing effort on the road.
“A lot of credit goes to Davis’ family and how he was raised and the kind of person he is,” Shaw said, echoing comments Mills himself made before the season.
When Mills learned of the testing situation before the team meal at the hotel in Oregon, he showed Shaw, as so many of his prior coaches have discovered, that he is unflappable.
“Hey Coach, there’s nothing we can do about it right now,” Shaw remembers Mills telling him. “I’m just wishing my guys success and rooting them on.”
Meanwhile, Shaw, who shares Mills’ tendency to avoid highs and lows, had his own, different reaction.
“I was too busy trying to get a team ready to play,” Shaw said. “Surprised and anxious and pissed off and then come Sunday, less surprised and less anxious and a little bit more angry.”
Despite Mills’ calm demeanor, the offense was out of sync and fell behind 35-16 early in the fourth quarter.
“We really didn’t catch a good rhythm on offense until the start of the fourth quarter,” Mills said. “It’s too late in the game. Obviously, we need to start sooner. I don’t want to blame anything on missed practices and missed opportunities but I mean, it shows up on film. I missed a couple of key third down conversions, missed a couple throws.”
Stanford scored the final 16 points against Colorado as Mills completed 14 of 28 fourth quarter passes for 167 yards and a touchdown. That eight of those attempts were targeted at senior wide receiver, and Mills’ roommate, Connor Wedington should come as no surprise. The two captains connected four times for 52 yards and completed a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter alone.
“Before I was starting, [Connor] and I were going out in the offseason, on our own time, just throwing the route tree on both sides to each other to really build that chemistry,” Mills said. “Late in the game, I was able to count on him for some key conversions, some key catches.”
Normally, Mills would have an entire offseason to build that chemistry with his receivers. This year, in addition to a shortened preseason camp, he had just one day of practice leading up to his first game of the year. As he found his rhythm in the fourth quarter, Mills repeatedly turned to his roommate to make tough plays.
“The quarterback has to make some decisions, quick decisions, and sometimes you may not be 100% open,” Shaw said, drawing on his playing experience as a wide receiver. “If you’ve established a relationship, the quarterback knows, ‘I’m going to give you a chance to make a play. I know you, I trust you, you’ve made plays for me before, I’m gonna put the ball in your hands.’”
“No excuses with Davis and I last week not being able to practice the whole week straight into a game,” Wedington said. “We have to find a way to win regardless of any adversity that we face.”
COVID-19 contact tracing protocols kept Mills, Wedington, junior defensive end Trey LaBounty and senior wide receiver Osiris St. Brown off the field in Week 1.
“[Davis is] one of my best friends,” Wedington said. “Me, him and Osiris have been roommates ever since I can remember at Stanford. We definitely have a lot of chemistry built off the field and on the field as well.”
The offseason looked different for Wedington as well. Back home in Washington for the longest time since coming to Stanford as a freshman, Wedington worked out at Ford Sports Performance, a training facility in Washington. Numerous professional players use the facility, such as Richard Sherman ’11, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, DK Metcalf and Josh Gordon. Wedington was even able to match up one-on-one with Sherman.
“Richard Sherman, he is nothing to play with,” Wedington said. “I definitely had to be focused and know what I had on him, which I think is my speed, and use that to my advantage.”
Mills noticed that Wedington had become a more complete receiver. In their first game together, Wedington caught more passes than any other Cardinal receiver, eight, on a team-high 13 targets.
Facing Washington State, one of two defenses in the conference allowing more points per game than Stanford, Wedington is excited for the receivers and Mills to have their full fledged debut.
“If they want to come down and press our receivers across the board, then that should be a mistake, and we need to take advantage of that,” Wedington said. “We’ve obviously talked about this receiving corps for a long time. And at the end of the day, if it’s going to be all one-on-one matchups, then we need to win those.”
Wedington and Mills will have their chance on Saturday in Stanford Stadium. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. PT.
“It says a lot about [Davis],” fifth year kicker Jet Toner said. “I think most people would be pissed if they were held off of something that, you know, we all know, he’s been working so hard for this.”
Mills was not the only Cardinal playing through adversity last week. Toner had a nightmarish Week 1, in which he did not make any of four field goal attempts. Unsurprisingly, Shaw and his teammates stood by him and Toner converted on three field goals as Stanford opted against playing aggressively.
“That’s a rough flight,” Toner. “It’s a rough flight any time it’s a loss, but especially that night.”
Toner, who is from Hawaii and went to powerhouse high school Punahou, has been called a “cool Hawaiian breeze” by his head coach for his ability to navigate.
“I think it’s funny,” Toner. “I think it’s something that I pride myself on, but it’s definitely something that I’ve earned and something that I work towards.”
Sophomore cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly considers Toner one of the hardest workers on the team, and Toner’s time spent perfecting his craft allows him to play with the necessary confidence.
“You don’t see a mailman celebrating when he delivers a package to the front door,” Toner said. “For me, when I make a kick, when I miss a kick, it’s got to be the same reaction. Because the expectation for me, from Coach Alomar and from myself, is that I make it.”
Toner also kept perspective by noting the struggles that people are going through due to the pandemic, which Stanford has chosen to play through.
For the kicker, another adjustment will be coming this weekend as junior long snapper Kyle Petrucci is injured and will be replaced by freshman Bailey Parsons.
“Unfortunately, we’re not going to have nine months of time to go through snap, hold, kick,” Toner said. “We’re going to have to develop this quickly, but we all know that, and we all have the ability to just trust in each other.”
Stanford also announced a four-game series against Hawaii, beginning in 2023, that had been in the works on and off for a few years.
“We’ve enjoyed great success recruiting Hawaii,” Shaw said. “Hopefully this continues that. We’ve got multiple guys on our team that are either from Hawaii or have family there that would love to go back and play in front of their family and friends.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.