UC Davis suffers 45-20 home defeat in Big Sky opener
The UC Davis football team suffered its worst defeat of the season in Saturday’s Big Sky opener, falling to the visiting Montana Grizzlies by a final score of 45-20.
It was a stunning blow to the Aggies, a top-5 FCS team in many rankings polls, especially after last week’s hard-fought loss to the defending national champions.
The postgame mood in the home locker room wasn’t one of panic or anger, but rather pure disappointment and frustration due to the opportunities left on the table and numerous sloppy, uncharacteristic mistakes.
In his postgame press conference, UC Davis Head Coach Dan Hawkins explained that losses like this are par for the course along the journey of an ascending program and for a team still learning how to sustain success.
“Hardly ever, when you first learn how to fly a kite, do you just get it up in the air and it just goes the whole time,” Hawkins said. “You’ve got to lose a kite in the electrical lines or trees before you figure out exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.”
“It’s probably the first time in my two and a half years here that I felt like we got out-coached, out-energy-ed, out-executed and out-desired,” Hawkins admitted.
While the team is playing this season under the weight of increased expectations, every Aggie opponent also has added incentive to put forth their best effort and knock off last year’s conference champions.
“It’s interesting for these guys to understand wearing the target on your back,” Hawkins said. “When you go win the championship, every team and every staff that plays you will go research the heck out of you, figure out how to stop you and study your film. They’re gearing up for you.”
UC Davis simply could not get anything going on offense for all four quarters and found itself constantly playing catch-up, trailing by as many as 31 points early in the third quarter.
The Aggie defense was significantly overmatched for much of the afternoon as well, failing to get off the field on third downs and missing an alarming number of tackles in the open field. Every time it seemed like UC Davis had a chance to get a defensive stop and swing the momentum, Montana rose to the occasion and made meaningful plays to move the chains.
A particularly damaging breakdown in coverage on the third play of the second half led to a breakaway 62-yard touchdown for the Grizzlies and opened the floodgates for a nightmarish third quarter.
“I think it really came down to tackling,” said junior defensive back Erron Duncan. “[Montana’s] quarterback did a great job of creating on the run. Even with their running backs, they were pounding us and we couldn’t tackle. We were in the position the majority of the plays to stop the run for a minimal gain and we just couldn’t make the plays.”
UC Davis was severely gashed by a relentless Grizzly rushing attack that totaled 260 yards on the ground and averaged an even six yards per carry. Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed used his legs to escape the pocket and take off running on many occasions. With many one-on-one coverages downfield, Aggie defensive backs had to choose between covering their assignments or crashing toward the scrambling Sneed, who ran for 81 yards on 10 attempts.
“He made us look silly in the open field at times and was able to beat us around the edge,” Hawkins said. “You could really sense his competitive fire and you’ve got to admire that. He struggled a little bit last year against us so I give him a lot of credit for coming back and playing like he did.”
Montana seemed to suck the life out of the Aggie defense on a few lengthy scoring drives that took significant chunks of time off the clock. The Grizzlies were content to play a dink-and-dunk style of offense at times, patiently grinding out short gains on the ground and slowly wearing out UC Davis, while always coming up with the right play design to keep drives alive on third down.
UC Davis coaches and players constantly stress the importance of winning the turnover battle, but Saturday’s game could not have strayed further from the plan as the visitors prevailed in that department by a tally of 3-1. A pair of Aggie turnovers, both lost fumbles, in the opening minutes of the third quarter gifted Montana two easy touchdown drives, which essentially put the game out of reach with still over 23 minutes left in the contest.
UC Davis was fortunate to even get on the scoreboard in the first half, taking advantage of a “roughing the kicker” penalty on junior punter Daniel Whelan that extended a mid-second quarter drive. Sophomore wide receiver Carson Crawford scored on a 3-yard touchdown reception that made it 14-7 at the time, the smallest deficit the Aggies would face for the remainder of the afternoon.
The Aggies went into the locker room at halftime having amassed just 148 yards of total offense, the lowest of any half this season. UC Davis started out cold with four consecutive punts and an interception. In addition to a stout Montana defense, the Aggies were halted by a pair of key penalties that negated lengthy pass completions to senior tight end Wes Preece and sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr.
UC Davis was never able to establish the running game, averaging just 1.9 yards per rush, and was forced to abandon it in favor of a pass-heavy attack when Montana started to pull away in the third quarter.
The Aggie offense was not helped by unfavorable starting field position on almost every single offensive drive of the afternoon. Of the team’s 12 possessions, Davis only began past its own 26-yard line two times and was backed up inside its own 10-yard line three times. UC Davis Quarterback Jake Maier and the rest of the offense were faced with the daunting task of trying to piece together drives of 80+ yards and, as a result, were unsuccessful the majority of the time.
“When everything goes well and you score 50 points in a win, everyone tells you how great you are,” Maier explained. “When stuff like this happens, you’ve got to own it because you own the 50 points and the wins. We’ve got to be more disciplined. We keep turning the ball over and getting penalties in big situations. Regardless of what happens in these games, we can’t do this to ourselves.”
Maier was able to complete 74% of his passes and threw for a trio of touchdowns, but a pair of costly turnovers prevented him from leading the offense to more points and gave Montana prime field position to extend the lead.
On the team’s first possession of the third quarter, Maier was stumbling backwards in the face of heavy pressure and mistakenly dropped the ball on his own while losing his balance. A Montana lineman easily scooped up the loose football at the 14-yard line and the Grizzlies found the end zone on the very next play.
Maier was forced to operate without star junior wide receiver Jared Harrell, who exited early with an injury, but found success with fellow junior wide receiver Khris Vaughn who hauled in a pair of touchdowns to go along with a team-leading 57 receiving yards.
Maier moved into second place in school history with his 69th career touchdown pass, a 17-yard strike to Vaughn early in the fourth quarter. Other than that, it was a forgettable afternoon at the office for the signal caller, but he did not shy away from taking responsibility for the ugly performance.
“This is 100% on me,” Maier said. “I’m a leader of this team and where I go, this team goes. Whatever we’ve got to do to prepare better, practice better and make sure we’re executing, that falls on me ultimately.”
There’s no doubt that this loss is a negative blow to the Aggies’ playoff aspirations, due to the lopsided nature of the final score and the fact that the game was being nationally televised on Root Sports. Of course, UC Davis has seven more games to redeem itself and right the ship, but there are no cupcakes on the upcoming schedule.
Nonetheless, Saturday’s blowout provides added motivation for the players to correct their mistakes and come back stronger.
The Aggies will have to hop on a flight back to North Dakota at the end of the week and prepare for a battle with the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in Grand Forks. The game kicks off at 11 a.m. and can be streamed on ESPN3.
UC Davis will return home to UC Davis Health Stadium on Oct. 12 for Homecoming weekend and the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe against Cal Poly.
Written by: Brendan Ogburn — email@example.com