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Davis, California

Monday, March 4, 2024

Aggies look north for FCS quarterfinals challenge

UC Davis set for rematch with Eastern Washington

For the UC Davis football team, last Saturday’s postseason victory over the University of Northern Iowa accomplished two things. For one, it served as the program’s first ever Division-I playoff win — a feat that, on its own, deserves to be celebrated. But in addition, the result guaranteed the Aggies a chance at redemption.

As the dust has settled on the historic win and the temperature continues to drop up and down the west coast, the Aggies trotted back out to the practice field this week just as they have in each of the past weeks since August. The only difference: they are preparing for a FCS quarterfinals showdown with Big Sky rivals Eastern Washington, a team that handed the Aggies their worst loss of the season on Nov. 10.

“It’s an opportunity that doesn’t happen a lot, to play a team [twice] within a month is kind of crazy,” said junior quarterback and offensive standout Jake Maier. “What’s funny, after the game, a lot of talk of the players on the field when we were shaking hands was, you know, we’ll probably see you guys again. And we were right. We’re motivated to go back up there and try to even the score.”

For a team that averaged over 43 and allowed just 26 points per game entering that first matchup in Cheney, it seemed preposterous that UC Davis would manage to collect only 20 points while allowing a season-high 59 against the Eagles — especially given that the halftime score had the Aggies trailing just 21-17.

The second half of that game proved disastrous for UC Davis and stands as arguably the team’s worst 30 minutes of football this season. Three interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown to open the third quarter), two fumbles, a missed field goal and a turnover on downs by the Aggies resulted in a 38-point second half from Eastern Washington. It’s no wonder why Maier, senior wide receiver Keelan Doss and head coach Dan Hawkins all praised the aggressiveness of the Eagles’ defense while stressing the importance of executing and taking care of the ball on offense.

Make no mistake, Eastern Washington’s defense is legitimate. The Eagles hold opponents to under 22 points per game and possess one of the best scoring defenses in the country. Maier had one of his worst games of the season against them — he threw two interceptions and was held to under 200 yards passing for only the second time this year. In their game last Saturday against Nicholls, the Eagles held the Colonels to 21 points and recorded a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Aggies will need to crack this tough defensive unit on Saturday if they want to inch closer to a national championship.

For how talented Eastern Washington is on that side of the ball, the Aggies also have a defense that has proved itself formidable throughout the season. With 23 forced turnovers, UC Davis ranks in the top 20 in turnover margin and has held opponents to 21 points or less in seven of its 12 games. The Aggies needed all of that defensive power and more to defeat Northern Iowa last Saturday.

“Playing a respectable opponent like UNI made the stage even bigger for us to showcase our abilities and our talent,” said junior Linebacker Nas Anesi. “Like I said before, we finally discovered our true potential and we’re barely scratching the surface.”

UC Davis held the Panthers to 16 points, under 50 percent on third down conversions and forced two interceptions — all of which was crucial in allowing the Aggies to slip by 23-16. After that postseason performance, Anesi is understandably confident in the defense’s ability to show up in big games, even when the offense isn’t exactly rolling. Even Maier praised his teammates on the other side of the ball, saying that the defense “did not flinch” against UNI, a team with more size and strength than the Aggies had been accustomed to playing.

The Aggies will be facing a much different type of opponent this Saturday, though. Eastern Washington ranks second in the nation in total offense and fourth in scoring, averaging 543 yards and just a tick under 45 points per game. For as well as the Aggie defense played last Saturday, it very well might have to play an even better game this weekend.

There is no one on the UC Davis defensive unit that doubts the team’s ability to better itself. Similarly, the offense is excited to get another opportunity to right the wrongs it committed in the regular season battle.

“It doesn’t matter where we play, it’s how we play,” Doss said.

This seemed to be the mindset echoed by every member of the UC Davis football team throughout the entire season. It is a mentality that certainly stems from that of Hawkins, who preaches consistency and discipline. No one in the program is thinking of Saturday’s clash as a revenge game, according to Doss, but Anesi admitted that knowing what Eastern Washington did to the Aggies in early November has put somewhat of a chip on UC Davis’ shoulder.

“[This Saturday’s game is] really a shot at ourselves,” explained Hawkins, downplaying the narrative of Aggie vengeance.

Regardless of how this UC Davis team feels when it makes the trip up to Cheney on Saturday, the results of the regular season — and even last week’s victory — won’t matter. The high temperature on Dec. 8 in Cheney, Wash. is also projected to be a mere 31 degrees. It will be very cold, but as Hawkins puts it, both teams will have to deal with the weather.

Perhaps there is a secret weapon that UC Davis will have under its belt in Washington this time around, and that’s the Aggie Band-uh. The UC Davis marching band announced Wednesday that it has raised enough money to make the trip up to the Pacific Northwest. A little slice of Aggie pride will be present at UC Davis football’s most important contest in decades, and Hawkins was fired up to hear the news.

“When I was at Willamette, the band came up — the Ags were playing at Portland State,” Hawkins said, recalling his days coaching at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. in the 1990’s.

He explained that, when he heard the band was making the trip up for UC Davis’ game in Portland (about 50 miles away from Salem), he invited its members to stay in the Willamette gym on the condition that they would play at Willamette’s game that weekend as well. And play they did.

“I still remember the game, and our Willamette guys remember, because the band’s out there playing, I got tears running out of my eyes, I’m like on fire! I love those kids. It’s great for college football, it’s great for us and they bring a lot of juice.”

Band or no band, it will ultimately come down to how the Aggies compete once the ball is kicked off at 1 p.m. on Saturday, and they’re not quite ready to have this magical season come to an end.

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org


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