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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Aggies fall short in Fargo, look ahead to Big Sky play

UC Davis nearly upsets NDSU, faces Montana on Saturday

Saturday’s UC Davis football game against North Dakota State was undoubtedly one of the biggest showdowns in the last couple of decades — perhaps even over the program’s entire history. A match-up of the No. 4 Aggies, per Hero Sports, and the top-seeded Bison seemed sure to supply a wealth of entertainment and provide some insight into UC Davis’ ability to step up to the table and prove itself as one of the top powers in FCS football.

Despite the disappointing 27-16 loss, the Aggies came away from this game with a renewed sense of positivity and optimism after the team came so close to shocking the world.

It was a sheer dogfight for four quarters inside the vaunted FargoDome on Saturday afternoon. After weathering an early storm, the Aggies settled down and went blow for blow with the defending national champions for the remainder of the contest.

Trailing 20-16 midway through the fourth quarter, the Aggies had three offensive plays from inside the Bison four-yard line, but a pair of stuffed runs followed by a costly interception from quarterback Jake Maier appeared to seal the visitors’ fate.

Thanks to a quick stop from the Aggie defense, Maier and the offense got the ball back for one more shot at redemption with just under four minutes left.

Just before North Dakota State’s punt, UC Davis sophomore cornerback Devon King, possibly the best Aggie defender through the first four games, had a chance to intercept a pass on third down, but the ball narrowly slipped out of his hands. King, playing one-on-one coverage close to the sideline, would’ve had a clear path to run the ball back for a pick-six, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

Nevertheless, UC Davis still had more than enough time on the clock to take time and put together a game-winning touchdown drive. Unfortunately, the very first play of the drive resulted in another Bison interception when Maier’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off.

North Dakota State made quick work of the very short field ahead of them and punched in a game-sealing touchdown three plays later, putting the hopes of a UC Davis to bed.

UC Davis actually outgained their opponents by a tally of 422-354, but a handful of untimely penalties, including a few favorable home calls for the Bison, and a stiff North Dakota State defense forced the Aggies to end their drives with three points instead of seven.

Maier handled the pressures of this enormous clash in an extremely calm and confident manner, drawing rave reviews from many people associated with the North Dakota State program who were getting an up-close look at him for the first time.

“Their quarterback is a special young man,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz. “We tried to hit him as much and pressure him and he still hung in there and did a great job. I have all the respect in the world for [UC Davis] and how they go about their business. They’re good.”

Maier completed 29-of-48 pass attempts for 312 yards, connecting with junior wide receiver Jared Harrell a dozen times for 102 yards. UC Davis was able to get the running game going at certain times on Saturday, as tailbacks Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. and Tehran Thomas broke off a few long runs and averaged 3.75 yards per carry between them. Gilliam was very active in a pass-catching role out of the backfield, bringing in seven completions for 47 yards.

The UC Davis defense gave an exceptional all-around effort, allowing a season-low 156 yards through the air and holding a relentless Bison rushing attack to a respectable 4.5 yards per rush. The scoreboard doesn’t exactly tell the whole story of the unit’s performance on Saturday, as two of the three Bison touchdowns came on drives that started inside the Aggie 35-yard line.

Head Coach Dan Hawkins and the rest of the Aggies always stress the importance of winning the turnover battle as the main key to winning every football game. The Davis defense managed to create one of those game-changing plays they always talk about when King forced a fumble at the start of the third quarter, and junior linebacker Connor Airey was there to swoop up the loose football.

The Aggies showed a certain fearlessness on Saturday, refusing to back down from one of the biggest challenges they may face all season. In typical fashion, Hawkins placed great trust in the offense on five separate fourth down situations, and his players responded by converting three of those.

For many outsiders watching the game, it was a feeling of relief, more than anything else, to know that the Bison won’t simply waltz through the FCS and be handed their eighth National Championship in ten years. Although North Dakota State extended their historic winning streak to 25 games, they were given a test unlike one they’ve faced in quite some time.

At the end of the day, this is a loss that will only help the Aggies in the FCS playoff conversation come late November, and potentially aid their chances of receiving a higher seed in the 24-team tournament should they qualify. Over the years, very few teams have been able to accomplish what UC Davis did on Saturday — go into the FargoDome, force the Bison to be on their “A” game, and position themselves to win the football game in the closing minutes.

UC Davis has only strengthened its resume with this type of showing and while the team will ultimately have to navigate a grueling Big Sky schedule over the next two months, Saturday’s performance was another huge step in the right direction for a group with legitimate National Championship aspirations.

The first test of conference play awaits this upcoming Saturday when UC Davis hosts the Montana Grizzlies for a 1 p.m. kickoff at UC Davis Health Stadium. 

Most fans will remember the epic slugfest these two teams participated in last October in front of a raucous environment in Missoula. The Aggies overcame an 18-point deficit and rattled off 46 unanswered points in the second half to stun the home crowd and put the rest of the Big Sky on notice. 

If Saturday’s game is anywhere close to as entertaining as last year’s matchup, we should be in for a real treat.

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org


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