Photo credit: gostanford.com
By Ana Kieu
The last time Davis Mills started was in the state title game during his senior year at Greater Atlanta Christian in 2016 when he sustained a knee injury. Rated the top recruit in Georgia by several publications and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect in the country, he threw for 6,290 yards and 66 touchdowns.
On Saturday night, Mills received his first college start under the bright lights on a big stage in front of a national television audience, quarterbacking No. 23 Stanford (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) against USC (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12). After missing all but one contest the last two seasons due to knee injuries, the junior held his own in the 45-20 defeat to the Trojans.
“It felt great to get back out there,” said Mills. “It has been a long time. I struggled with a couple injuries my first year out here but getting back on the field always feels great … unfortunate result.”
Replacing injured senior K.J. Costello, Mills completed 22-of-36 passes for 237 yards, the most by a Cardinal signal-caller in their first career start since Kevin Hogan in 2012 (254). Composed and comfortable most of the way, despite a crowd of 62,109, Mills was sharp and tossed his first collegiate touchdown on a perfectly executed screen pass to junior wide receiver Connor Wedington in the first quarter.
Mills missed a few throws and was intercepted once, but he showed confidence, command and fight. He’ll grow from the experience.
“I thought we did pretty well at some things,” Mills said. “Definitely some things we can improve on going into the next couple of weeks. It’s a long season and we have a lot to work on.”
Arguably, Mills’ most impressive pass came on the first series of the third quarter, when he avoided the rush, stepped up and alertly shuffled the ball with is right hand to fifth-year senior running back Cameron Scarlett on third-and-long to prolong the drive.
David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, saw the positives in Mills’ performance.
“I thought he played well,” Shaw said. “It’s just about not missing those opportunities. But I think he’s going to be outstanding. He’s got a great mind for the game. He’s athletic, has a great arm, he’s accurate. He’s going to be really, really good.”
Costello provided input on the sideline.
“He was in my ear pretty much between every possession,” Mills said. “I could bounce some stuff off him because he has all the experience. He was great helping me out throughout the game.”
WORK TO DO: Leading 20-10 with 7:57 remaining in the second quarter, Stanford surrendered 35 unanswered points.
“Honestly, we didn’t come out there and execute,” said fifth-year senior outside linebacker Casey Toohill. “That hurts to say. You never, ever want to look back and realize it was completely on your own execution, that it was completely in your control, but it was. We just didn’t have a good game, didn’t execute.”
Toohill expects the Cardinal to bounce back.
“We got a lot of games left — a lot of football left to be played after this,” he said. “After this, we’ve got to look hard at the film, look at our performance and improve from there. Next week is a new opportunity, a new week, and that’s what we look forward to.”
PLAYMAKERS: Wedington, Scarlett and Colby Parkinson had big nights. Wedington produced a career-high 197 all-purpose yards, catching five passes for 67, ran once for 17, and returned three kickoffs for 103 yards, taking one 60 yards.
“At the end of the day, we had the lead, we just need to play like it’s 0-0 and not get complacent,” Wedington said.
Wedington called his touchdown was a group effort.
“It was a quick screen behind a great block by (junior) Foster (Sarell) on the edge,” Wedington said. “Great toss by Davis, too, and I had great blockers out there.”
Parkinson caught seven passes for 89 yards, while Scarlett ran hard for 82 yards on 17 carries.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Wedington’s long return and a fumble recovery by sophomore outside linebacker Tobe Umerah on a USC kickoff return forced by junior outside linebacker Thunder Keck were highlights.
Senior kicker Jet Toner converted two field goals but missed from 39 yards and another attempt from 47 yards was tipped. The Trojans came close to blocking freshman Ryan Sanborn’s first punt.
DECEIVING STATS: In the third quarter, Stanford possessed the ball for 11 minutes and didn’t score. The Cardinal finished with a nearly seven-minute time of possession advantage and each team recorded 23 first downs.
Using a new Air Raid, no huddle offense, USC piled up 492 yards behind freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis and a host of talented playmakers. Stanford struggled to generate a pass rush and missed a lot of tackles.
“It didn’t have to do with the air raid or anything, it has to do with us rushing the passer,” said Shaw. “We’ve just got to beat guys one-on-one. We got to him a couple times, but not enough.”
Junior cornerback Paulson Adebo led the Cardinal with eight tackles and broke up two passes.
BROTHERLY LOVE: Stanford junior wide receiver Osiris St. Brown played against his brother, USC sophomore receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, and both had their moments. Osiris caught two passes for 19 yards and displayed his athletic ability by leaping over a Trojan defender. Amon-Ra had his way with the Cardinal secondary, grabbing eight receptions for 92 yards and two scores.
UP NEXT: The Cardinal travels to Orlando, Florida next Saturday for a 12:30 p.m. PST game at Spectrum Stadium (44,206) against No. 17 UCF. The Knights (2-0), who play in the American Athletic Conference, have beaten Florida A&A (62-0) and Florida A&M (48-16).
UCF is 27-1 the last three years and lost to LSU, 40-32, last season in the Fiesta Bowl.
True freshman Dillion Gabriel recorded his first start at quarterback on Saturday and threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. The UCF ground attack eclipsed 300 yards for the second straight week.
NOTES: Costello’s status for Saturday will be determined during the week … Freshman Walter Rouse received his first start at left tackle, becoming the second true frosh to earn the distinction since Walker Little in 2017 … Sophomore strong safety Kendall Williamson equaled his career-high with seven tackles … Freshman running back Austin Jones made his first career reception and caught two passes for 19 years … Stanford has not allowed a first quarter touchdown in five games … The Cardinal continues to hurt itself with holding penalties and mistakes. After two games, Stanford leads the Pac-12 in penalties with 16 for 160 yards … USC compiled 10 tackles for loss … Wedington ranks No. 1 in the conference in kickoff returns (32.0), No. 3 in all-purpose yards (140.5) and No. 5 in receptions (12/136) … Adebo ranks first in the Pac-12 with five passes defended … Toohill rates No. 2 in tackles for loss and No. 4 in sacks … Gene T. Sykes, MBA ’84, managing director at Goldman Sachs, served as the honorary captain. He has been a member of the Stanford Board of Trustees since 2014 and is member of the GSB Advisory Council.
QUOTE: “It’s definitely going to test us. It’s our first loss of the season, not something we expected. We just have to drive it back, watch the film and keep going.” — Connor Wedington