Before Saturday, senior quarterback Davis Mills had not thrown an interception in 204 passes or a pick-six in his entire life. In the span of seven passes, Mills threw three interceptions, the last taken to the house by cornerback Jay Shaw as UCLA scored 31 straight points to pull ahead by 14 with under six minutes to play.
The self-proclaimed “Road Dogs” (4-2, 4-2 Pac-12) won in double overtime 48-47 over UCLA (3-4, 3-4 Pac-12). Mills’ three passing scores all came after his three interceptions, and for the afternoon he completed 32-of-47 for 427 yards.
It was a surprise to no one that Mills rallied.
“I’ve never seen Davis down, ever,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw ’95. “I’ve never seen him sulk, no matter what’s happened.”
Although it was a “low point,” by the time Mills was on the sideline he was moving on to thinking about how to win the game. From the booth, offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard ’09 shared memories of Stanford’s 2011 triple overtime win over USC, during which Andrew Luck ’12 threw a pick-six at a similarly inopportune moment.
“There wasn’t any panic on the sidelines. There wasn’t a lot of yelling and screaming on the sidelines,” Shaw said of Mills. “They’re of course picking him up. They trust him; they believe in him.”
“They immediately had my back,” Mills said. “We’ve really done that all season; we’ve overcome all the adversity that we faced and found a way to win when it counted.”
To send the game to overtime, Mills threw two scores to junior wide receiver Simi Fehoko, who became a favorite target with the two other top receiving options, senior Connor Wedington and junior Michael Wilson, unavailable due to injury.
Fehoko set a Stanford single-game record with 16 receptions. In double overtime, Mills only targeted Fehoko, first for 11 and then for 14 yards and the go-ahead score. In total, the connection accounted for 230 yards and three scores, the third most single game receiving yards in Stanford history.
“We’ve been talking about how special we believe Simi is since we recruited him,” Shaw said. “Once we lost Connor and Michael, Simi really just turned it on.”
Before running onto the field for the game-tying drive, Fehoko was with special teams coach Pete Alamar talking about a field goal block play. A UCLA fumble rendered that conversation unnecessary.
Mills found Fehoko with 18 seconds on the clock to set up fifth year kicker Jet Toner’s game-tying extra point. After UCLA kneeled to send the rollercoaster game to overtime, Shaw had a message for his team.
“I told the guys at the end of regulation that they can’t be surprised by this,” he said.
Honestly, it was fitting. The Pac-12 had its season delayed, canceled and reinstated. Senior left tackle Walker Little and senior cornerback Paulson Adebo opted out of the season. Stanford lost three players for its season opener to a testing protocol error. Stanford played just one home game and lost, with Mills shaky in the first half after 45 total minutes of practice in the lead-up to the game. Stanford won The Axe on the road only to find out it would not be able to return to Stanford for the rest of the season; Santa Clara County banned sports.
“I think it was fitting for the game to end the way that it did,” said senior outside linebacker Gabe Reid.
Playing as a nomadic team, practicing in indoor facilities and public parks, Stanford won three straight.
“They changed the Twitter name to road dogs, and we really stood up to that name,” Fehoko said.
“This team just really knows how to win,” Mills said.
Asked where he would rank the team in the conference, Mills said No. 1.
For his part, Shaw compares this 2020 team favorably to the others he has coached in his 10th year in the position.
“There’s always going to be a special place in my heart for this group.” Shaw said. “This team should go down in Stanford history as one of, if not the most, resilient team ever.”
At the end of the game, Shaw gathered the team on the field and asked the fourth and fifth year seniors to stand up while the rest of the team applauded.
“For us to be able to do what we’ve done in the last four weeks, we can’t do that without senior leadership,” Shaw said. “I had to make sure that on the field, we got a chance to give those guys a round of applause.”
While Stanford will take a break before jumping into conversations about NFL futures, Shaw acknowledged the circumstances for the seniors. Without a senior day, with just one home game and unexpected athletic and academic situations, 2020 has been weird.
On Wednesday, talking about the ordeal of recruiting in 2020, Shaw made an extended metaphor to the drive down Lombard Street in the city. Despite the challenges, Stanford survived and even got good pictures. Still, it is not something that Shaw would rush to try again. Talking to the media, it seems that rest is the most pressing thing on his mind.
“We’re exhausted,” Shaw said. “Everybody’s exhausted. I would say 90% of college football is exhausted.”
Soon, Shaw will reunite with his own bed, with his family and the other coaches and players will do the same. Stanford, though bowl eligible, declined postseason opportunities.
Without excuses, doing whatever it takes, executing and relentlessly adapting, Stanford matched its 2019 win total over the last four weeks. Still, that might not be the biggest win. Since training camp began in earnest, Stanford did not have a single positive COVID-19 test. The biggest win may be escaping COVID-free.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.