Labeling Stanford’s 20-17 loss to UC Davis the low point of the pre-Jim Harbaugh era is debatable since the Cardinal followed that 2005 defeat to a then-new Div. I-AA program by going 1-11 in 2016. However, that marked a clear indicator Stanford football needed a change.
UC Davis (2-0) returns to the scene of that historic upset Saturday, and it’s a much different Stanford (2-0) these days. Harbaugh’s arrival in 2007 ushered in immediate credibility and momentum carried over when current Cardinal coach David Shaw assumed the reins in 2011.
Stanford won three Pac-12 Conference championships under Shaw, and last Saturday’s defensively dominant 17-3 victory over defending league champion USC has the ninth-ranked Cardinal looking like strong contenders for a fourth crown.
Thirteen years is a virtual lifetime in football. The players who will take to Stanford Stadium on Saturday were elementary schoolers in 2005 when Walt Harris was Stanford’s head coach. Current UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins had not yet even left Boise State for Colorado, a job he held through the 2010 season, before moving to the broadcast booth. Hawkins returned to the sidelines six years later with the Aggies.
In much the same way Stanford underwent a transformation shortly after 2005, UC Davis is underdoing its own metamorphosis with Hawkins. The Aggies’ 54-21 blowout of San Diego last week preceded their moving into the Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 for the first time in program history.
The defeat of San Diego — Shaw’s last stop before Stanford, coincidentally — followed UC Davis beating San Jose State 44-38.
“We’re much more confident, much more self-assured,” Hawkins said on the Big Sky Conference podcast after the San Jose State win. “We’ve got a lot of depth, feel like we can play a lot of guys on both sides of the football.”
Last season was Hawkins’ first at UC Davis, and the Aggies finished 5-6. With more depth and more experience – including quarterback Jake Maier, whose 446 yards passing led UC Davis in registering a staggering 623 yards against San Jose State – UC Davis could be a contender in the Big Sky.
“They’re making plays on the offensive side,” Shaw said. “They have an inspired football team … that’s playing their best football.”
Starting off with that win over an FBS opponent in San Jose State is a positive step for the Aggies, as it’s just the third such victory in program history.
The first was that 2005 win at Stanford.
UC Davis has seen Stanford once since the upset. The Cardinal opened the 2014 season with a 45-0 blowout of the Aggies, and that game included the first career touchdown of 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey’s departure following the 2016 season opened the door for Bryce Love to take over at running back, and Love had his own runner-up finish for the Heisman a year ago.
Following a 136-yard rushing performance against USC that jumpstarted Love’s 2018, one week after mustering just 29 yards against San Diego State, the running back is scratched from the lineup Saturday. He is out with an undisclosed injury.
Losing Love exacerbates a point Shaw addressed, following a key win in conference play.
“Coming off a very physical game against USC, us not taking our foot off the gas pedal,” Shaw cited as a primary concern. “It has nothing to do with UC Davis necessarily, it has to do with us. No matter who we were going to play this week, we’re putting some guys back together to play a football game.”
Although Stanford loses its star tailback, the Cardinal do have center Jesse Burkett back on the offensive line. Burkett and the rest of the front five will open holes for Cameron Scarlett, the change-of-pace back likely to handle the majority of the workload in Love’s absence.
Quarterback K.J. Costello played a quiet, albeit error-free, game against USC. He could see more plays called in the passing game against a UC Davis defense that allowed 365 and 296 yards through the air in the first two contests.
More than 118 yards passing would beat Stanford’s output when UC Davis stunned the Cardinal in 2005. Of course, these are two much different programs now.