Aggies run riot in lopsided home opener

Aggies run riot in lopsided home opener

Photo Credits: JUSTIN HAN / AGGIE

UC Davis football delivers 41-13 blowout with huge game looming

Saturday night’s home opener was a chance for the UC Davis football team to flex its muscles on an unfamiliar non-conference opponent, rewrite some school records and work out the kinks in advance of next weekend’s road showdown against the defending FCS National Champion North Dakota State Bison.

The Aggies did not disappoint on any level, delivering a clean 41-13 demolition of visiting Lehigh, a member of the Patriot League. With all due respect to the Mountain Hawks, there was never any doubt that the Aggies were going to impose their will and ultimately choose just how much they wanted to run up the score. Numerous oddsmakers had UC Davis favored to win the ballgame by upwards of 35 points, a striking indication of the newfound respect the defending Big Sky champions have garnered from outsiders in a short period of time.

The UC Davis offense exploded for a second successive week, amassing over 500 total yards and rewriting the record books on a couple occasions. Senior quarterback Jake Maier lit up the Lehigh defense to the tune of 389 passing yards and four touchdowns on 38 completions. He went on a staggering run at one point in the game, completing 30 out of 32 pass attempts, including eight in a row on the opening drive.

Maier topped the 300-yard mark for the seventeenth time in his 27-game career, now tied for the most in school history. He was able to spread the ball around to numerous pass catchers, 11 in total, before getting a rare break and giving way to backup quarterback Hunter Rodrigues in the fourth quarter.

Sophomore wide receiver Carson Crawford put on a show for the home crowd with the best performance of his young Aggie career, hauling in nine receptions for a career-high 148 yards and a touchdown. Crawford’s outstanding display comes as no surprise to anyone in the program, as the wideout has led the team with 21 catches through the first three weeks.

In the past, he’s been a consistent, reliable safety net for Maier in underneath and intermediate routes, but he turned things up a notch on Saturday night and showed another element to his game with four catches of 20+ yards. The two have continued to develop a prosperous working relationship, partly due to the extra work they put it in during the spring and summer months.

“In the offseason, I tried to get with Jake [Maier] as much I could,” Crawford said. “Having the trust of your quarterback is one of the biggest things to have as a wide receiver. He always says he’s going to throw to the guys that get open in practice.”

Crawford has quickly gained a reputation in the locker room as an extremely smart and hard-working leader who focuses on all the small details of the game.

“The little things mean a lot to him,” Hawkins said. “He’s starting to become a little bit of a coach on the field for the rest of the guys and helping them. Jake [Maier] has maximum trust in him and he knows he’s going to be where he’s supposed to be, when he’s supposed to be there.”

Besides Crawford, junior wide receiver Khris Vaughn was the other standout performer in the passing game, finishing with eight catches and a pair of touchdowns. Similar to Crawford, Vaughn’s work ethic and relentless dedication has also made a solid impression on his teammates.

“Coaches call him the detail guy, whether it’s in the weight room, taking notes or on the field, because he’s doing everything right,” Crawford explained. “That’s just KV. He’s there when you need him, making big plays in practice and it translates to the games. You should expect more of that in the upcoming games.”

Vaughn started the scoring for UC Davis with his first career touchdown, a two-yard catch that capped off the Aggies’ third straight game with an opening drive touchdown.

“We have really high expectations for ourselves, so going out there and scoring on the first drive is what we expect to do every week,” Crawford said. “Regardless of who we play, we go out there expecting to score on every single drive because if we don’t, we’re not living up to our full potential.”

It’s safe to say that confidence is very high in the Aggie scoring attack these days, as evidenced by the eight fourth down plays when Hawkins decided to keep the offense on the field. The team responded by converting six of those attempts on Saturday, including three that went for touchdowns.

“Having Coach Hawk believe in our offense and Coach Plough having a play ready gives us so much more confidence to convert those fourth downs,” Crawford explained. “We’re almost ready to go for it on every fourth down and then we’re honestly surprised when he brings on the field goal unit because we want to score on every drive.”

On the other side of the ball, the Aggie defense turned in an impressive bounce back performance after surrendering 35 points in last week’s 38-35 nail-biter win over San Diego.

“We didn’t really play to our standard last week,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Eaton. “All week in practice we emphasized bringing the juice and running to the ball, and it really showed on the field tonight. When you make big plays, it’s the whole defense working together and everybody doing their job.”

The UC Davis front-seven was rampant in creating pressure up front and essentially lived in the Mountain Hawk backfield for much of the night, racking up seven sacks, thirteen tackles for loss, and two turnovers.

Eaton was the leader of the pack, flying all around the field with two and a half sacks, two and a half tackles for loss, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble.

“We emphasis sacks, turnovers, and interceptions,” Eaton said. “We call it the ‘big three’ and we’ve got to get at least three in each of those categories every game.”

It looked as if the home team might pitch its first shutout since 2006, but a pair of Lehigh touchdowns in the final six and a half minutes spoiled any hopes of completing that historic achievement.

Nonetheless, the defense made a lot of positive strides and built some confidence heading into a tough matchup next weekend.

Following Vaughn’s early touchdown, the Aggies tacked on another seven points later in the quarter when senior tight end Wes Preece, blanketed by a defensive back, caught a four-yard touchdown pass on fourth and goal.

With the score, Preece moved into tenth place in school history with his 19th career receiving touchdown, which is also the most ever by a tight end.

Shortly before halftime, sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam extended the UC Davis lead to 21-0 on a short touchdown run, his fourth of the season. Gilliam had a relatively quiet night by his standards, rushing for 56 yards on 15 carries.

In the second half, UC Davis scored on three straight possessions, with junior running back Tehran Thomas, Crawford and Vaughn all finding the endzone.

Crawford’s touchdown came on a spectacular 24-yard catch in which he leaped to high-point the football between two defenders.

Vaughn’s touchdown catch was equally as impressive, as the junior was being dragged backwards by a defender but somehow managed to swallow up the football with one hand in the front corner of the endzone.

The Aggies will fly to Fargo, ND at the end of the week, ahead of Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. kickoff versus North Dakota State at the FargoDome. The game can be streamed online at ESPN+.

As you would expect, UC Davis refuses to treat this contest any differently than every other game on its schedule, despite the mighty opponent that will loom on the opposite sideline.

“We always say nameless and faceless opponent,” Crawford said. “They’re a great team and we’re really excited to play them, but we’re going to go at it like any week because you can’t look up or down at an opponent.”

No matter what happens, the Aggies will leave North Dakota with a better grasp on how they stack up against the best team in the FCS.

“It’s always great to play really good football teams,” Hawkins said. “It’ll be a great, fun environment. The kids want to play in big games and big environments, so it’ll be a really good litmus test.”

UC Davis will return home to UC Davis Health Stadium on Sept. 28 for the start of Big Sky play against Montana. That game will kick off at 1 p.m.

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org