Heartbreak in Cheney

Heartbreak in Cheney

Photo Credits: JASON HARRELL / UC DAVIS ATHLETICS

UC Davis football loses FCS quarterfinals, 34-29

It only took 47 seconds for the Eastern Washington Eagles to spoil the Aggies’ hopes of advancing and hosting their second Division I postseason game. Trailing by one with just over a minute remaining, the Eagles put together a four-play, 75-yard scoring drive in the closing moments of Saturday’s contest to break the hearts of the UC Davis faithful and move on to the FCS semifinals.

The second battle between the two Big Sky foes proved to be the more thrilling one, with several lead-changes, incredible plays and wire-to-wire drama. But like the first installment, the sequel ended with the team from up north walking away with the win.

The temperature at kickoff — and throughout the night — was several degrees below freezing, but the weather did not seem to bother either team. After a quick six-play drive resulted in a UC Davis punt, Eastern Washington scored on its first offensive possession of the afternoon to go up 7-0. Just three plays later, the Eagles took the ball right back, intercepting junior quarterback Jake Maier’s errant pass that sailed right over his intended receiver.

The Aggie turnover set up Eastern Washington well inside UC Davis territory. With an opportunity to take an early two-score lead, the Eagles elected not to kick a field goal on fourth-and-one from the 11 yardline and instead their attempt to convert on downs was stonewalled by the Aggie defense.

It wasn’t until the second quarter that the UC Davis offense found its stride. Finding themselves in a fourth-and-short situations of their own, the Aggies decided the take a risk that ended up paying off. On fourth down in plus territory, UC Davis called on the services of redshirt freshman running back Ulonzo Gilliam, who dashed through the heart of the Eagle defense and scored from 29-yards out to even the contest at seven.

Gilliam was not nearly done. The Aggies’ next possession was sparked by a trick play — a 44-yard pass from redshirt freshman wideout Carson Crawford to junior wide receiver Jared Harrell, which put the Aggies in range. It was then Gilliam’s turn again to finish the drive, scoring from 24-yards out to give UC Davis its first lead of the game, 14-7.

A 91-yard touchdown drive by the Eagles on the ensuing possession evened things up for the second time. Now with time running out in the half, the Aggies drove the ball all the way down to the Eastern Washington three yardline. The aggressive style of head coach Dan Hawkins again took over, as the Aggies opted to try to score six instead of three points before the halftime whistle blew. But unlike the first fourth down attempt, this one was not so successful. The teams headed into the break all tied up.

The third quarter couldn’t have started better for the Aggies. Senior defensive back Isiah Olave intercepted a pass by Eastern Washington’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere, setting up a third UC Davis touchdown six plays later. The score came from freshman receiver Lance Babb II, who made a toe-tapping catch at the edge of the endzone for his first-ever reception and touchdown as an Aggie.

With the score now 21-14 in the Aggies’ favor, both defenses began to settle in. Each of the game’s next six drives resulted in a punt, but one of these UC Davis possessions was stalled after a long pass from Maier to Crawford appeared to be completed on third down along the Eastern Washington sideline. It was ruled incomplete on the field, so the Aggies were forced to punt, but ESPN’s video replay of the catch showed Crawford securing the ball with at least one foot in bounds.

Nevertheless, the Aggies failed to add it their lead in the third quarter, and eventually gave up two consecutive Eastern Washington touchdowns to start the final frame, including one on a two-play, 62-yard drive by the Eagles sparked by a 55-yard reception.

Trailing by seven once again, the Aggies pieced together a seven-play, 42-yard drive in which they converted on two third downs to find the endzone with 1:13 remaining. Gilliam was responsible for this clutch score, scampering in on a shovel pass from Maier for his third touchdown of the afternoon. Gilliam finished the game with 167 all-purpose yards.

“The offensive line, they did their thing today,” Gilliam said. “They opened those holes up for me and I just did my job and hit them.”

Just an extra-point point away from tying the game and a two-point conversion away from taking back the lead, Hawkins did not hesitate to put it all on the line. Unbothered by the boisterous Roos Field crowd, UC Davis executed its two-point play to perfection. Maier took the shotgun snap and quickly flipped the ball to senior running back Namane Modise, who streaked his way to the left pylon and scored to put the Aggies on top 29-28.

The magic that had defined this season for UC Davis looked as if it had not run out. Now the Aggies stood just 73 seconds away from the program’s first-ever FCS semifinals birth. All they had to do was hold the Eagles one last time.

With three timeouts and starting from its own 25 yardline, the Eagle offense saved its best for last. On the first play of the drive, Barriere appeared to be caught in the backfield multiple times by Aggie defenders, but somehow slipped away to scramble 29 yards downfield.

If that wasn’t an indicator for how the game would finally end for the Aggies, Eastern Washington’s senior running back Sam McPherson scored just three plays later to put the nail in the coffin on UC Davis’ season.

The last-minute loss was obviously not the result the Aggies had hoped for. But looking back on the run that the UC Davis football team put together this season, coming up short on Saturday did not prevent the Aggies from appreciating what they were able to accomplish.

“I couldn’t be more proud of my team,” Doss said. “This team was able to accomplish something that Davis has never done. It’s awesome to be a part of and I’m glad I got to experience it with these guys. I know the future is bright.”

In his final game as an Aggie, Doss hauled in nine catches for 143 yards against what he said was a “great” Eastern Washington defense. He recorded a UC Davis single-season record 118 receptions this season for 1,334 yards. Doss’ career 4,069 receiving yards and 321 receptions are both the most in program history. It has yet to be confirmed, but Aggie fans can expect to see number three on an NFL roster come August 2019.

Hawkins, in his highly-unique and philosophical style, likened the UC Davis football program to bamboo. He’s never grown bamboo himself, but people have told him that it sits dormant for some time and all of the sudden bursts forth and “grows 40 feet in one year.”

“[This season] was magnificent in a lot of ways,” Hawkins said. “To get a share of the championship, to get in the playoffs, to win in the playoffs, really sets a whole new standard for UC Davis football.”

For many college football analysts, the sudden and intense success that the Aggies experienced this season was unexpected. According to this year’s preseason poll, UC Davis was picked to finish ninth in the Big Sky. It’s safe to say that this team exceeded everyone’s expectations but its own.

“We’re really, really proud,” Maier said. “When you experience failures like this, it just motivates you to work even harder.”

Maier has one more year of college eligibility left and he would like to make it count. He and the rest of the team’s returners will take their well-deserved time to reflect on the incredible 2018 campaign, but sooner rather than later they will all be back to build upon the new gold standard that was forged this season — one that will be remembered for years to come.

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org