For the next few weeks, Stanford will, in the words of head coach David Shaw ’95, have an “away life.”
When Santa Clara County announced its new guidelines, Stanford was forced to choose between a home and the ability to play football. Shaw, drawing from his experience on two different COVID-19 working groups over the summer and into the fall, had two questions.
“‘Should we?’ and ‘can we?’” Shaw explained. “The ‘should we’ is always answered by the student-athletes.”
The process to reach a ‘can we?’ determination began on Friday evening, when fresh off the emotional high of reclaiming The Axe, Santa Clara County gave Stanford an idea of where it was headed. Led by Matt Doyle and Callie Dale, Stanford’s operations team worked “feverishly” to put forward three options that would allow the season to continue.
One was reprising the tactic from training camp, in which Stanford practiced in San Mateo County but stayed in Santa Clara County. Another option was to move to another county somewhere in California. The third, which was the eventual choice, was to transplant the entire operation.
On Tuesday, Stanford announced that football will be on the road in Seattle to play No. 23 Washington on Saturday, and remain on the road through its game against Oregon State a week later.
To arrive at that point, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and athletic director Bernard Muir okayed the avenue for play, which included Tessier-Lavigne speaking with the president of the University of Washington, Ana Mari Cauce.
Stanford also consulted with medical staff to ensure the team’s testing protocol, which includes testing up to nine times per week, would remain possible.
“We haven’t had a single positive — knock on wood — on our team in months, [which] means that our student athletes are working really hard because they want to play,” Shaw said.
Still, Shaw solicited feedback from the team. Every player filled out a survey and had the opportunity to speak openly to their coaches in a group or private setting. A few opted out, including junior fullback Jay Symonds, but the majority made their choice clear: Stanford wanted to keep playing, even if it meant living on the road.
“We wanted to make the administration and the staff know we wanted to play and we were willing to do anything possible to make that happen,” said fifth year free safety Malik Antoine, the sixth two-year captain in the Shaw era.
Faced with the option of staying in a hotel, getting fed, with a place to lift weights, the ability to enjoy themselves within the rules during free time and still being able to play football, Shaw heard his players respond: “Alright, let’s go.”
“Student athletes are more resilient than we are,” Shaw said, repeating a truism he heard a long time ago. “For that question of ‘should we,’ our student-athletes have worked so hard this entire offseason to get ready for the season and we’ve only played three games, and they want to play more.”
As plans were materializing on Sunday’s off day, the team was sitting back, resting and recovering while waiting to hear what the administration came up with. Luckily, the plan did not need to incorporate academic obligations because the fall term had already ended on Nov. 20 — Shaw believes the plan would not have been feasible even with remote classes.
Junior wide receiver Michael Wilson called the new guidelines a scare. Senior quarterback Davis Mills considered the move to Seattle “different” than expectations, but the guidelines “left us with no other option.” And while Antoine admitted the relocation to the Pacific Northwest was “not an ideal situation,” he also said that the energy of the team has been “great.”
“We’ve all really adapted to the change, we’ve been excited, we’ve been working hard, been having positive energy,” Antoine said.
Antoine thinks there could be benefits from more time to watch game film. When there is no school and the team is relegated to a hotel, there is more time to focus on the task at hand: executing on Saturday.
“We can make a lot of excuses, we can give into a lot of the distractions that we’re going through, but I think guys are just excited to play Saturday,” Antoine said. “We are really thankful for our administration to get this done.”
Stanford’s coaches have been able to maintain a schedule similar to what it would be if the team were still on campus and in school.
“We’ve been doing the same things we would if we were back home, preparing the same as usual,” Mills said.
Stanford did have to choose who would make the trip. Because Stanford is transplanting its entire team, the 75 player limit for a typical travel team was not in place. The program was also able to take a high percentage of the football crew. Of course, Stanford’s testing, sanitation, rules and regulations also followed the team north.
In addition to the players that opted out, players with long-term injuries, including junior cornerback Ethan Bonner who was added to that list last week, were left on campus. So were families of coaches and staff.
“I know it’s not easy for a lot of the equipment staff, the coaching staff, the training staff having to leave their families for a few weeks,” Wilson said.
Stanford was able to practice Monday, changing what a typical practice would look like to maintain physical distance and follow the county restrictions that call for no “contact sports.” Shaw shared advice from his mother to the team: “No matter how difficult a decision that you have, once you make a decision, you go forward with enthusiasm and do it to the best of your ability.”
On Tuesday Stanford flew to Washington. That night, Stanford practiced at Washington’s indoor facility. For the rest of the week, with more time to find a field, Stanford has practiced at high school fields.
The motto of the season is N.E.W. E.R.A. The last two letters, which stand for “relentlessly adapt,” have been applicable all season, but never more so than this week.
Wilson, who was heavily involved in creating the acronym, had been thinking about how much the words had dictated the team’s path. So, too, was the head coach.
“Our guys have had that mantra, ‘relentlessly adapt’ the entire season,” Shaw said.
Still, unknowns remain. For one, the cost. After offering a collection plate to the media, Shaw said he thinks “it’s a combination of our budget and the conference’s budget.”
“I can’t imagine how much it costs,” Wilson said.
Another unknown is what will happen after Stanford leaves Corvallis. The Pac-12 scheduled a crossover game for its final week but that now seems up in the air, too.
“I just know it can’t be played in Santa Clara County,” Shaw said.
Scouting the Huskies
Big Game was the first time all season that Mills had an entire week of practice heading into a game. He delivered with a final line of 24-of-32 for 209 yards and a touchdown. Shaw shared that he told Mills he had a 75% completion rate (his career high) with two drops and two bad throws.
“That’s great,” Shaw said. “That’s better than we were the week before. Now it’s making all the throws, making all the catches and still getting some explosive plays.”
In practice this week, wide receiver coach Bobby Kennedy observed that Mills and the receivers hit their collective stride in terms of chemistry.
The passing game, however, will be matched up with the nation’s third-best total defense. Opponents have averaged just 162.7 passing yards per game against Washington.
“All of us need to be really honed into our technique and dialed in, because it’s going to come down to whether we can beat press coverage, or man-to-man,” Wilson said. “This is such a great opportunity for our wide receiver group to go against another highly touted defensive back group.”
Meanwhile, Washington has allowed 151.3 yards per game on the ground, potentially spelling a big week for sophomore running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat. It was, after all, Cameron Scarlett’s ’19 151 yards that powered Stanford’s upset over then-No. 15 Washington last season.
“They are long, they’re athletic,” Shaw said. “They’ve always been good on defense and they’re physical up front.”
Washington’s physicality begins with Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who has seven sacks and three forced fumbles through three games.
“ZTF is a physical, athletic son of a gun,” Shaw said.
While Stanford is on the road indefinitely, Washington has not played a game this season away from Husky Stadium. The home team has also won the last five games in the series. If Stanford has an advantage, it may be that every stadium feels like — or at least sounds like — Stanford’s this year.
“It’s always tough playing at Stanford,” Washington running back Sean McGrew said. “Their crowd is really quiet, and it’s never completely filled up there. So it gets very quiet easily, which is basically how all our games are now.”
Elsewhere on offense, quarterback Dylan Morris’ favorite target is tight end Cade Otton. In three games, Otton has caught 16 passes for 212 and three touchdowns. Stanford’s defense is hoping it took a step forward in the game against Cal by holding an opponent below 35 points for the first time. Explaining what was different, Antoine said, “guys just made plays.”
Stanford’s national powerhouse soccer teams will not be back on the field until at least Feb. 3, but world football was in the spotlight last weekend. On Saturday, Sarah Fuller under then-Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason became the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game when she kicked off the second half.
“It was only a matter of time,” Shaw said. “And, like anything, it takes the right person. It takes the right environment, it takes the right people on the team and on the staff.
“I watched Sarah’s postgame interview and, knowing nothing about her, I got excited,” Shaw said. “I got excited that young girls all over the country would see that interview and say, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ She talked with clarity, she talked with confidence. She talked about her difficulties in life and in sports and in having to make that decision — do I want to continue in sports? And, yes, I’m so glad I did continue and this is what it gave me.”
But first, on Friday morning before Big Game, the U.S. women’s national team returned to the pitch for the first time since the SheBelieves Cup. In the spirit of Big Game, seven Cardinal made the trip to the Netherlands, and one former Bear. Kelley O’Hara ’10, Christen Press ’11, Jane Campbell ’17, Alana Cook ’19, Tierna Davidson, Sophia Smith and senior Catarina Macario represented the nation. Smith made her national team debut, and in doing so, became the first player born in the 21st century to be capped.
Wilson was only able to watch the first 20 minutes of the game before team meetings began, but received texts from his mother and brother when Smith went into the game in the 75th minute.
“Couldn’t be more proud of her,” Wilson said.
Later that day, Wilson was on the receiving end of Stanford’s only passing touchdown in the win over Cal.
If 2020 is feeling like the end of the world, then you are not alone. Shaw could only come up with one other situation that paralleled Stanford’s current predicament. In Week 17 of the 1999-2000 NFL season, when Shaw was the offensive quality control coach for the then-Oakland Raiders, the team flew out early for an away game. Instead of being forced out by a pandemic, the Raiders’ reasoning rested on worries that flights, clocks and the like would prevent the team from making it safely to the game, scheduled for January 2, 2000.
So, Oakland left a few days early and stayed late, winning 41-38 in overtime to keep Kansas City from claiming the AFC West division title.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.