The result is unsurprising, even if the route was a little strange.
Saturday night’s Pac-12 tilt between No. 15 Washington (4-1) and 2-3 Stanford will feature a pair of former five-star quarterbacks, in the Huskies’ Jacob Eason and the Cardinal’s Davis Mills. Not so long ago, the 6-foot-6, 227-pound Eason was listed as the No. 2 pro-style passer and the No. 5 overall prospect in the 2016 class by 247Sports. A year later, the 6-4, 214-pound Mills was ranked as the premier pro-style passer and the No. 15 overall recruit in the 2017 class.
So, sure, when they signed with their respective programs, it was widely assumed that both Eason and Mills would be starting meaningful games during the 2019 season. But few could have expected that Eason would 1.) be beaten out by Jake Fromm at Georgia, 2.) transfer to his home state school, 3.) redshirt a season behind Jake Browning and then 4.) narrowly edge current Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener in an August QB competition. Mills, meanwhile, waited more than two years to make his first career start in place of injured veteran K.J. Costello.
But, despite the detours, here they are. But which starter will fulfill their considerable potential on Saturday night? In three games outside of conference play, Eason has overwhelmed opposing defenses, completing 77.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 901 yards (300 per game) with 10 touchdowns and one interception.
But in two Pac-12 games, the numbers have been significantly less impressive. Against Cal and USC, Eason completed just 60.7 percent of his passes and threw for an average of 171 yards per game, with an interception and five sacks. His next Pac-12 touchdown pass will be his first.
Granted, he can’t do it on his own, and UW’s wide receivers dropped a season’s worth of passes in the 20-19 loss to Cal. And, in this case, the numbers also aren’t everything.
“I thought he played well (against USC). I really did,” said UW offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan. “We’ve just got to continue to give him things to create. He can’t try to do too much, take what the offense gives him and let his natural ability take over.”
He should have an opportunity to do that on Saturday, against the worst statistical passing defense in the Pac-12. The uncharacteristically defenseless Stanford secondary enters Saturday’s game ranked 127th nationally in opponent completion percentage (70.6%), 126th in opponent pass efficiency rating (170.60), 124th in opponent yards per attempt (9.4), 115th in passing defense (287.4 yards per game) and 111th in touchdown passes allowed (11).
In other words, Eason could be primed for a Pac-12 eruption.
Just don’t say that in front of Hamdan.
“I think we’ve just got to keep growing one week at a time,” he said, expertly smothering expectations. “I think the outside noise is always expecting (greatness) from him, but he’s got to take it one day at a time now and next year and the year after that and wherever the football takes him. It’s a growth mindset, one game at a time, continue to improve and that’s what our focus is always.”
The UW defense’s focus, meanwhile, is on Mills, who completed 18 of 25 passes (72%) for 245 yards and three touchdowns in last weekend’s 31-28 win over Oregon State. Mills’ tape is limited, but his talent is evident.
Chris Petersen and Co. know exactly what to expect on Saturday night.
“I think Mills is probably a little bit more of a (runner than Costello),” UW’s head coach said. “But they’re there to throw the ball. They’re there to hand it off eight yards deep and throw the ball in the pocket. It doesn’t mean they won’t do a little something different. But I think they have a system they like and they recruit to that.”
At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, on ESPN, two former five-star recruits will set up under center — better late than never. And, more than likely, they’ll play in front of an unsurprisingly underwhelming Stanford Stadium crowd. When the Cardinal defeated a legitimate Big Ten opponent in Northwestern in their season-opener on Aug. 31, the announced attendance was 37,179. Three weeks later, 39,249 watched Stanford fall to Oregon, 21-6.
So it’s probably safe to assume that Saturday night’s Pac-12 night cap will be a somewhat intimate affair.
The Huskies are preparing for that atmosphere — as well as Davis Mills.
“All we can do is talk about it and then replicate it the best we can in practice,” Petersen said of Stanford’s somewhat unusual home environment. “But that’s part of the beauty of Stanford. They have their own unique way, and there’s been no better team in the Pac-12 in the last 10 years than Stanford.
“Let’s not forget that. Our guys don’t forget that. They know, when they play Stanford, what’s coming their way.”