Despite being expelled from its home, Stanford found a way to play, and win, on the road.
Before the season, Stanford practiced at Woodside High School in San Mateo County to avoid Santa Clara’s COVID-19 restrictions. This time around, following another round of pandemic-related precautions, Stanford flew to Seattle to comply with the county’s guidelines.
The home team had won the last five games in the series and on Saturday, Stanford made Husky Stadium its home. Scoring on its first five drives in the game and holding the ball for just shy of the last eight minutes, Stanford (2-2, 2-2 Pac-12) withstood a comeback from No. 23 Washington (3-1, 2-1 Pac-12) to win 31-26.
During the week, Stanford practiced at high school fields, among other eclectic locations, in the Seattle area. On Thursday, for Stanford’s walkthrough, Shaw wanted his team to practice outside in the unseasonably sunny weather.
At first, Stanford tried to hold its walkthrough in a “parking garage” but were forced instead to move to Bellevue Downtown Park.
“Some of the guys say we got ‘Paul Blart-ed’ out of the mall parking lot,” Shaw said. “Outside of people walking and taking pictures and the ducks walking through, the walkthrough [in the park] was great.”
“We were doing Thursday walkthrough in the frickin’ park,” said senior right tackle Foster Sarell. “People were taking pictures, making fun of us, but we came out here and beat them up. So there’s no happier feeling right now.”
It would not have mattered if someone had videotaped the entire walkthrough and shared it with Washington. Everyone knew Stanford’s game plan, and yet it worked anyway. Stanford ran the ball 40 times to 31 passing plays and amassed 191 rushing yards.
The onus was placed on Sarell, the rest of the offensive line and sophomore running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat.
Jones scored Stanford’s first two touchdowns and Peat accounted for the third. In the fourth quarter, Jones had already carried the ball 19 times for 94 yards when on the 20th carry, he fumbled for the first time in his 16th game at Stanford.
Washington inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio returned the fumble to the 10 yard line but was brought down by a touchdown-saving tackle from senior quarterback Davis Mills. The Huskies, who had trailed 31-10, had an opportunity to tie the game trailing 31-23.
On the sideline, Jones’ teammates were telling him they would have his back. With the help of two holding penalties, Stanford’s defense did just that, holding Washington to a field goal and preserving the lead.
“We got a couple calls that went in our favor, and we just fed off that,” said junior strong safety Kendall Williamson.
Mills’ tackle, which Williamson rated 10-of-10, allowed Stanford to get the ball back with the lead and 7:47 on the game clock.
From there, Stanford stuck with its lead running back, and Jones rushed 11 more times for the final 44 of his 138 yards.
Twice, the Cardinal’s game-sealing drive was in danger with third-and-long situations. Senior wide receiver Osiris St. Brown, senior wide receiver Connor Wedington and junior wide receiver Michael Wilson were all out of the game with injuries; that left junior Simi Fehoko as the only remaining starting wideout.
Both times, Mills targeted Fehoko for the first down. On the second, Fehoko came down with a highlight-reel one-handed grab for 25 yards.
“Those are the big plays that put the game back in the offensive lineman’s hands to run it out,” Shaw said.
After Fehoko’s reception, Mills handed the ball to Jones for the final six plays of the game as Stanford’s offensive line and running game clinched the victory over a ranked Washington in the fourth quarter to reach .500 for the second consecutive season.
“They put the pressure on us, they put the pressure on the backs and we held the ball for eight minutes against a good football team,” Sarell said.
Stanford’s offensive line, which “felt pretty close” to dominant for Sarell, finished the job. Washington’s sophomore outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui had seven sacks through three games but did not record a single tackle against Stanford, and his team was held without a sack.
“I was thrilled that he had zero sacks, and he didn’t do much,” Sarell said. “For me, it was a statement that I can block anybody, and I think that was for our whole line.”
“I love nothing more than to put pressure on myself, on our line,” he added.
Shaw credited a better run game, fewer passing third downs and playing with the lead for limiting the impact of Washington’s defensive line. Stanford had the confidence to put the game in the hands of its offensive line and the Tunnel Workers Union came through.
“I feel old school,” Sarell said. “I love playing this physical brand of football. It’s what we’re known for. It’s what the foundation is built on.”
“When we were rolling, I really didn’t feel like there was anything they could do to stop us,” he added.
Running behind the line, Jones saw the same thing.
“[Washington] realized they couldn’t stop it,” he said of Stanford’s run game.
Stanford’s heavy and power sets also featured additional offensive linemen, like freshman tackle Myles Hinton, senior tight end Tucker Fisk, and fifth-year tight end Scooter Harrington and senior fullback Houston Heimuli.
Harrington caught Stanford’s only passing touchdown, the second of his career, on a play-action at the goal line.
With the opt-out of junior fullback Jay Symonds prior to the extended road trip, Heimuli is the only traditional fullback on Stanford’s roster. On Saturday he delivered a game that Shaw considered “perfect.”
“It’s very rare that a football coach would just say, ‘Hey, let’s get our fullback going’ but that’s what we’ve said the last couple of weeks,” Shaw said.
“I’m very proud of how our guys banded together, and we moved dudes,” Sarell added. “It wasn’t always pretty, but we got the job done. We rushed for some good yards, and we broke their will. I’m literally ecstatic.”
The success on third down was a theme throughout the afternoon. Stanford converted on 10-of-13 third down attempts and on both of its fourth down situations.
“It was a significant difference playing in this stadium without the fans,” Shaw said. “That helped a lot, first and foremost, because we can hear — normally we can’t hear.”
When needed, Mills was able to escape pressure. Testing protocol errors kept Stanford’s quarterback out of Stanford’s season opener and in isolation until the day before the loss to Colorado. In Big Game, Mills completed 75% of his passes and built on that effort with a performance that Shaw called “good.”
Mills completed 20-of-30 passes for 252 yards and a passing score. With the injuries in the receiver room, sophomore Elijah Higgins paced Stanford receivers with five receptions.
Stanford’s 24-3 halftime lead put Washington in a 21-point hole at halftime for the second straight week. Last week against the Utes, Washington scored 24 unanswered points for its largest comeback win since a game against Cal in 1988.
Leading the comeback against Stanford, Washington quarterback Dylan Morris completed nine straight passes to start the second half and rushed for a touchdown. Running back Sean McGrew also broke out as the lead back and scored twice on the ground.
“When we are more experienced, this is the kind of game that you win by 14, 17, 21 points,” Shaw said. “We’re not old enough yet to really put a good team like Washington away at home.”
Fifth-year kicker Jet Toner converted on a 42-yard field goal and on all four extra points to extend his perfect streak to 111 consecutive PATs, passing Conrad Ukropina ’16 for most all-time in program history.
On the other side, for the second consecutive week, junior defensive end Thomas Booker blocked a point after attempt. In the Big Game, Stanford blocked two kicks, including Booker’s game-clinching PAT block, which earned him Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
The bad news coming out of the game is that St. Brown will miss the rest of the season with an injury, and Shaw expects that Wilson and Wedington will as well.
“We’re one of the youngest teams in America,” Shaw said. “We’ve also probably taken some of the most punches in America.”
There were 398 days between Stanford’s most recent two wins before Saturday. This time, it took just eight days. In seven days, Stanford will have its next opportunity at Oregon State. Until then, Stanford will remain a nomadic football team, calling everywhere and anywhere its home.