Blowout victory puts UC Davis football on cusp of first ever Big Sky title
The UC Davis football team continued its magical 2018 season with a 42-20 win over visiting Northern Arizona University on Saturday afternoon at Aggie Stadium. The sixth consecutive victory for the Aggies, a program record, keeps them in first place in the Big Sky conference with a monumental showdown looming versus second-place Eastern Washington next Saturday in Cheney, Washington.
Last Wednesday, the FCS committee placed UC Davis at No. 3 in its top-10 rankings. The top eight seeds at the end of the season will automatically earn a bye in the first round of the FCS playoffs, a 24-team tournament that begins Nov. 24. The Aggies haven’t earned a berth in the FCS playoffs nor won the Big Sky conference title since moving up to the Division I level.
UC Davis was in cruise control for the majority of Saturday afternoon’s contest, jumping out to an early 21-0 lead after three possessions. This was a stark change from the previous three games in which the Aggies fell behind by double-digits before staging big comebacks.
“The emphasis was to start out fast, try to take the life out of them early and set the tempo for the rest of the game,” said junior quarterback Jake Maier.
Sophomore running back Tehran Thomas and senior wide receiver Keelan Doss each scored a pair of touchdowns, and the Aggies utilized a balanced attack on offense to keep the Lumberjacks guessing. UC Davis rushed for 215 yards on the ground, averaged an even five yards per carry and gained 262 yards through the air.
Thomas handled the largest workload of his career, carrying 24 times and running routes out of the backfield for a total of 150 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s a big guy that can be a battering ram, but he’s also fast,” said UC Davis Head Coach Dan Hawkins. “He’s hard to bring down.”
Northern Arizona was forced to counter with an extremely one-dimensional, run-heavy attack due to multiple season-ending injuries at the quarterback position prior to Saturday’s game. The team ran the ball a whopping 66 times versus just 12 pass attempts, despite trailing by double digits for most of the afternoon.
There was plenty of action at the beginning and end of the game, but the contest hit a lull in the second and third quarters. The teams combined for 12 punts during that span, eight of which resulted from three-and-out’s.
UC Davis received the opening kickoff and promptly drove 69 yards in eight plays to get the scoring started. The Aggies made a couple key plays on third downs, including a 16-yard catch by Doss and a 13-yard run by Maier to keep the chains moving. To cap things off, Doss streaked down the seam with a 25-yard touchdown catch to make it 7-0.
Just when it looked like Northern Arizona was going to even the score, senior linebacker Mason Moe jumped in front of a screen pass to the running back, intercepted the ball at the 10-yard line and returned it 37 yards the other way. Moe was named the National Defensive Player of the Week by Stats FCS for his performance against Montana last weekend which included 13 tackles and a forced fumble.
“In my opinion, he could be the defensive MVP in the conference,” Hawkins said. “He’s really that valuable. He’s kind of the classic Aggie linebacker that’s really smart. It’s hard to fool him or fake him out because he knows what’s going on.”
The Aggies wasted no time in taking advantage of the turnover, quickly finding the endzone just three plays later. UC Davis executed a running back screen to perfection, with offensive linemen kicking out to the right side and setting up the blocks that sprung Thomas to an untouched, 39-yard catch and run to the endzone.
On its third possession of the game, UC Davis was content to slow things down and establish the run. Besides a few completions to its wide receivers, the Aggies continually grinded out short gains on the ground with the likes of Thomas and senior running back Namane Modise, culminating in a 13-play drive that took over four minutes. Thomas scored his second touchdown of the first quarter, taking a direct snap in the backfield and coasting untouched for a five-yard score to make it 21-0.
“Whenever my number’s called, I just try to make plays for my team,” Thomas said. “I’m here for my team and my coaches and anything they need me to do, I’m willing to do.”
The Lumberjacks started to show signs of life on offense as the second quarter began. Northern Arizona imposed its will in the trenches, trudging 75 yards down the field on 13 consecutive running plays capped off by a one-yard touchdown run. Only two of those runs went for more than seven yards, as the visitors steadily grinded out short gains to tire out their opponent. The extra point was blocked by the Aggies, so the score remained 21-6.
UC Davis took the ball into enemy territory at the 38-yard line, but Maier tried to find Preece over the middle on a third play and was picked off by a Lumberjack defensive back.
Neither side could get anything going on offense in the final nine minutes of the half, and the teams headed into the locker room with the score at 21-6.
The teams continued to trade punts back and forth until midway through the third quarter, when Modise broke the scoring drought with a 43-yard touchdown run up the middle to make it 28-6.
Early in the fourth quarter, Doss grabbed a 16-yard touchdown catch over the middle to push the lead to 35-6. He finished the day with eight receptions for 103 yards, marking his 17th career game with at least 100 receiving yards –– now the all-time record in Aggie football history.
Northern Arizona scored a pair of 49-yard touchdowns in the following six minutes to get back within two scores at 35-20.
UC Davis slammed the door shut with a nine-play scoring drive near the end of the quarter, capped off by a two-yard touchdown run by senior quarterback C.J. Spencer.
Next Saturday’s clash with Eastern Washington is undoubtedly the most meaningful game the program has seen in several years. With a win, UC Davis would, at minimum, guarantee a share of the Big Sky title with one game left against Sacramento State. If the Aggies win out, they will take home the conference’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs and a first round bye.
“It means a lot because we’ve given ourselves an opportunity, and that’s really all you can ask for,” Maier said. “We’re going to head down there, give everything we’ve got, have a great game plan like we always do and we’ll see if we can out-execute them.”
Written by: Brendan Ogburn — firstname.lastname@example.org