Aggies stand tall in hard-fought defeat to Cal

Aggies stand tall in hard-fought defeat to Cal

Photo Credits: JUSTIN HAN / AGGIE

UC Davis makes plenty of positive strides against tough Pac-12 foe

After one quarter of play on Saturday afternoon, it looked like the UC Davis football team was well on its way to a shocking upset over its fellow UC-counterpart, the California Golden Bears.

This is not to say that the Aggies weren’t expected to be competitive against a difficult Pac-12 opponent, because UC Davis has received a great deal of recognition this past offseason following the program’s first Big Sky title and deep playoff run last fall.

Everyone in the college football world takes the Aggies seriously these days, so the team will not be sneaking up on anyone this time around. In fact, UC Davis will have to learn to play under the weight of considerable expectations, after placing in the top-5 of multiple preseason top-25 polls and garnering numerous individual player honors.

The 2019 season could not have gotten off to a better start, under picture-perfect skies and a mid-70’s sun inside Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium. Aggie redshirt freshman defensive back Jack Shippy scooped up a Cal fumble on the opening kickoff of the year, forced by junior tight end Pat Miller, and the visitors picked up right where they left off eight months before.

Just four plays later, UC Davis found itself in the endzone, courtesy of a two-yard run by sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam, Jr.

Meanwhile, the UC Davis defense could do no wrong, forcing a pair of three-and-out’s and another critical turnover when sophomore defensive back Devon King picked off a floating pass in the first quarter. Early frustration even started to set in amongst the Golden Bear faithful, as subtle boos began to matriculate around the crowd of 44,168 late in the opening quarter.

After kicker Max O’Rourke nailed a 40-yard field goal to push the UC Davis lead to 10-0, senior linebacker Nas Anesi forced a fumble and junior defensive lineman Bryce Rodgers was right there with open arms to make the recovery.

With only 16 minutes gone by, UC Davis had already forced a trio of turnovers, giving the offense a golden opportunity to create some much-needed separation on the scoreboard.

Unfortunately for the Aggies, that opportunity fell by the wayside, largely due to a stiff California defense, and led to an eventual 27-13 season-opening defeat.

The Aggies struggled to move the football for the majority of the contest, up against a Golden Bear defense that many consider to be one of the best in the nation. They refused to surrender easy yardage and limited UC Davis to a 29.4% conversion rate on third downs.

Despite spreading the ball around to eight different pass-catchers, senior quarterback Jake Maier finished just 19-of-37 for 173 yards, the lowest yardage total in his 25 career games under center. 

“I’m not surprised as far as how they came out today,” Maier noted. “They do what they do at a very high level, and that’s what makes them great. We pretty much knew what they were lined up in most of the night, and we weren’t able to convert on certain plays.”

Although the Aggies felt very confident in knowing what to expect from the Cal defense, this knowledge was only so helpful to a certain extent, especially when their opponent executed its scheme to perfection.

“They don’t give up a lot of big plays so they’re going to force you to dink and dunk, catch it and run with it, but they’re seldom going to be out of position and you’re seldom going to get behind them,” Hawkins explained. “They’re going to keep things in front of them and pressure you.”

One bright spot for the offense was the performance of Gilliam, who found a nice rhythm at times during the afternoon while tallying 89 yards and 4.9 yards per carry. The sophomore from Merced has established himself as a workhorse tailback, after nearly eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark and scoring 13 touchdowns a season ago. 

It was only a matter of time before the Golden Bears started to piece things together offensively, and they did just that with back-to-back pass completions of 30 and 37 yards, with the latter winding up in the end zone after an acrobatic leap over the pylon.

Within seconds, California had completely snatched the momentum that UC Davis worked so hard to build up. From then on, the Aggies knew they were in for a dog fight the rest of the way.

A pair of field goals sent the Golden Bears into the locker room with a 13-10 advantage at halftime, forcing the Aggies to gather themselves and brace for the half hour of hard-nosed football that laid ahead.

UC Davis refused to back down from the challenge and made a point to establish the run on its opening possession of the second half, feeding Gilliam the pigskin on five consecutive plays. The drive resulted in a 32-yard field goal by O’Rourke to level the score at 13-13.

But as the afternoon wore on, California continued to grind down the Aggie defense with a relentless rushing attack that topped 230 yards by the end of the game. Cal ran the football nearly twice as often as they dropped back to pass, which proved to be a successful formula. 

“They did a really good job as far as staying on their blocks,” Anesi explained after the game. “We’ll go back and continue to watch film and focus on having more integrity. I thought they did a really good job.”

The Aggie defense was well-equipped to handle anything Cal was going to throw at them, but the final result simply came down to execution and minor details.

“There were no surprises at all,” Anesi said. “Our coaches did a really great job as far as game planning and our scout team did a great job preparing us. It’s a lot of small things and errors we need to fix.”

“When you play this level of competition, whether it’s a playoff game or this level, you obviously are not afforded a ton of errors like untimely penalties and turnovers, which are going to hurt you,” Hawkins added.

The Golden Bears broke the 13-13 tie with a touchdown drive late in the third quarter and added another insurance touchdown early in the fourth quarter to put the finishing touches on their tenth straight victory over the Aggies.

Despite the disappointing result, nobody in the UC Davis locker room was holding their head low walking out of the stadium on Saturday night. For the second year in a row, the team put up a respectable performance on national television and showed it can be a headache for Pac-12 schools to deal with.

“It’s not a win but I don’t think we’re walking away from here thinking we operated poorly or we didn’t give our best effort,” Hawkins said. “We played hard, we played well. We competed. We did the things you’re supposed to do in this sport and that will carry a long way.”

The Aggies clearly left a solid impression on their opponent, as evidenced by several compliments dished out by California head coach Justin Wilcox in his postgame press conference.

“Davis is really good team,” Wilcox said. “We knew they were going to come in here and try to win the game, and that’s exactly what they did. They’re really well coached with really good schemes and they have a hell of a quarterback.”

No matter the result, the team will have to dust itself off quickly as another road challenge beckons next Saturday afternoon. The Aggies travel to the University of San Diego with a chance to beat the Toreros for a third year running. After that, the home opener takes place on September 14 at UC Davis Health Stadium, when Lehigh visits for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org