Aggies beat Northern Iowa, head to quarterfinals

LUIS LOPEZ / AGGIE

UC Davis football earns a rematch with Eastern Washington after 23-16 home win

The UC Davis football team was victorious in its first-ever playoff game at the Division I level, slipping past the visiting Northern Iowa Panthers, 23-16, on Saturday evening at Aggie Stadium.

There was a time last season when the Aggies had to score at least 30 points in a game if they wanted a chance to come out on top. Saturday’s slugfest showed just how far the Aggie defense has truly come in the span of a calendar year. On a night when the UC Davis offense wasn’t racing up and down the field like it typically does, it was the team’s defense that came through with key stops time and time again.

“When the offense needs to rely on us, we try to make plays to get the ball back to them,” said senior linebacker Mason Moe. “We just feed off each other. We had to bite down because it was crunch time.”

Northern Iowa had its chances on offense, often driving down the field with relative ease, but were unable to finish off these possessions the way it wanted. The bend-but-don’t-break UC Davis defense buckled down deep in its own territory, as the Panthers scored just one touchdown on four trips to the red zone. In addition, the Aggies recorded two interceptions inside their own 25-yard line to keep the Panthers off the scoreboard.

Saturday’s ground-and-pound style of play was quite unfamiliar for this UC Davis team.

“It wasn’t in the typical fashion that we have [won] in the past,” said the UC Davis Head Coach Dan Hawkins. “I thought our defense played exceptional football with a lot of turnovers and a lot of stops in the red zone. Holding them to field goals was critical.”

Normally, the Aggies rely heavily on their vaunted passing game, led by junior quarterback Jake Maier and a slew of talented wide receivers. While Maier still threw for over 300 yards, completing throws to eight different players, it was the Aggie rushing attack and offensive line that showed tremendous toughness and grit late in the game.

“We were able to compete and contribute at all positions,” said senior wide receiver Keelan Doss. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s going to take to win these playoff games, especially if you want to win a national championship.”

With UC Davis clinging to a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Tim Plough called nine consecutive running plays to consume over four minutes of precious time and gain 63 yards.

“It was a little atypical for us to get our horns out and run the football,” Hawkins said. “The diversity and the way that guys adapted and rolled to that shows a lot about them and who they are.”

All in all, sophomore running back Tehran Thomas and redshirt freshman running back Ulonzo Gilliam combined for 135 yards on the ground on 24 carries.

“They trust us to put the game on our backs at the end of the game, be able to move the ball, pick up first downs,” Thomas said. “It means a lot. We like to rotate and keep fresh legs out there. I try my best to give the team everything I got, get first downs and make plays.”

Much like Northern Iowa, the UC Davis offense had its own troubles in finishing drives with seven points, instead of three. On two separate occasions, the Aggies had a first-and-goal situation from inside the 10-yard line, but settled for field goals both times.

With every landmark victory and memorable performance on the field, this year’s UC Davis team continues to cross new barriers for the program. In his postgame press conference, Hawkins referred to the team as the “gold standard” of UC Davis football for their accomplishments and groundbreaking achievements at the FCS level.

“Back in the old days, we didn’t play these kind of teams or play at this level,” Hawkins explained. “Every Aggie that’s ever played here will look at this team as the new gold standard.”

UC Davis now advances to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs where it will meet Big Sky counterpart Eastern Washington, the team that handed the Aggies their worst loss of the season — a 39-point drubbing in week 11. The Eagles overcame a slow start in their matchup against Nicholls State on Saturday but rebounded and scored 39 straight points to win by a final of 42-21.

“[Eastern Washington is] a great team and they got after us last time we were up there,” Hawkins said. “I’m sure our guys and coaches are looking forward to going back there and playing better.”

Northern Iowa received the opening kickoff of the game and trudged down the field into Aggie territory with a pair of long pass completions. It took several plays, but the UC Davis defense finally found its footing and bunkered down to force a 43-yard field goal by the visitors.

The Aggie offense put together a 14-play scoring drive and Maier was able to connect with four different wide receivers for first down completions. UC Davis was unable to punch it in on three straight plays from the seven-yard line and subsequently settled for a 24-yard field goal to tie the score at 3-3.

Junior kicker Max O’Rourke had his busiest game of the season, converting three of his four field goal attempts.

After the Panthers jumped back in front with a 36-yard field goal, senior wide receiver Keelan Doss got the following drive started with catches of 22 and 31 yards. Later, sophomore running back Tehran Thomas scurried for an 11-yard gain on a long third down play, putting the Aggies in striking distance. On the four-yard line, Maier faked a handoff and flipped the ball to a wide open junior tight end Wesley Preece in the endzone for the touchdown, giving the Aggies a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Early in the second quarter, Northern Iowa threatened to regain the lead, steadily moving the ball at will. On a third down play from the 26-yard line, sophomore safety Erron Duncan deflected a short pass over the middle and snatched the ball out of the air for the interception.

Later in the quarter, UC Davis took advantage of four key penalties by the Panther defense that put them in field goal range. O’Rourke banged through his longest field goal of the night from 35 yards away to stretch the lead to 13-6.

Northern Iowa quickly punted the ball back to the Aggies after three plays, thanks in part to a sack from senior linebacker Anthony Baumgart on the third down. This set up yet another historic, record-breaking play by Doss.

On a fourth down snap with 16 seconds remaining in the half, Doss made a leaping catch down the sideline, surrounded by two defenders, for a gain of 31 yards. This acrobatic reception put Doss over 100 receiving yards on the evening, which marks his 18th career 100-yard game — a new program record.

“He’s so smart about in-game stuff and he knows what’s going on,” Hawkins said. “He’ll recommend things because of what they’re doing to him. He’s a big, physical, strong, fast guy.”

UC Davis took a 10-point lead into the locker room, following a 19-yard field goal by O’Rourke as time expired in the second quarter. It was a tightly contested first half, with just a few critical plays separating the sides. The opportunities were there for UC Davis to take a larger, commanding lead but the offense was stood up on two separate trips inside the Panther 10-yard line. Overall, the Aggies only got one touchdown in four total trips to the red zone.

On the opening possession of the third quarter, UC Davis turned the ball over for the first time when Northern Iowa grabbed an interception off the hands of Preece at the two-yard line, before returning the ball 63 yards the other way. In the moment, this was a pivotal turn of events that kept the Panthers firmly in contention and denied the Aggies a chance to make it a three-score game.

Nevertheless, the Aggies didn’t back down on defense, forcing a 51-yard field goal try that fell about 10 yards shy of the crossbar.

The UC Davis offense took advantage of the good field position by putting together its second touchdown drive of the game. Sophomore wide receiver Jared Harrell made a sensational 45-yard catch, diving headlong to haul in the football despite being blanketed by two defensive backs. Two plays later, Gilliam coasted across the goal line from two yards out, pushing the home team’s advantage to 23-6 midway through the third quarter.

Northern Iowa quickly responded with a six-play scoring drive, aided by a 43-yard pass completion, to cut their deficit to ten points.

After an uncharacteristically-bad interception by Maier, who threw the football into double coverage, senior defensive back Vincent White undercut a route for an interception of his own on the very next play.

Northern Iowa converted a 45-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t get the game-tying touchdown they needed on their last two drives. On their final possession, the Panthers keep their hopes alive with a fourth down run of 17 yards. On UNI’s final snap from the UC Davis 36-yard line, Moe leaped in front of the receiver to break up a pass near the first down marker to seal the victory for the Aggies.

Next weekend’s quarterfinal against Eastern Washington will kickoff at 1 p.m. in Cheney, Washington. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN3.

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org

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