UC Davis drops third straight in 38-36 road loss
The UC Davis football team lost its third consecutive game and fell to 0-2 in Big Sky play with Saturday’s 38-36 gut-wrenching loss at North Dakota.
The Aggies battled back from a forgetful first half performance that put them behind 28-14 at the break, and came within seconds of walking out of the indoor Alerus Center in Grand Forks, ND with their first conference victory of the season. There was no shortage of drama in the final few minutes, but the visitors came up painfully short.
“I was really proud of the resolve we showed, and I really enjoyed our temperament, togetherness, and patience despite not starting well,” said UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins. “We just battled and were a little more of ourselves in this game than the previous game. I was happy that we returned to that level.”
Saturday’s loss drops the Aggies’ record to 2-4 on the season and puts them in the cellar of the Big Sky conference, along with two other teams also winless in conference play. But it was a far cry from last week’s 45-20 drubbing at home to Montana, a game in which Hawkins thought his team “got cautious, played tight and stopped smiling or having fun.”
With just over five minutes remaining in regulation and the Aggies trailing 35-28, senior quarterback Jake Maier led the offense down the length of the field and orchestrated a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Faced with a 4th-and-goal situation from the 2-yard line, Maier tossed up a jump ball to senior tight end Wes Preece, who outmuscled the defender in front of him and leaped up to make the catch in the corner of the end zone.
To nobody’s surprise, UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins elected to attempt a two-point conversion instead of settling for the game-tying extra point with 2:06 left in the fourth quarter.
On the two-point try, Maier ran a play-action fake and rolled out to his right before finding junior wide receiver Khris Vaughn open in the back of the end zone, giving UC Davis its first lead of the day, 36-35.
A costly mistake on the ensuing kickoff, which landed out-of-bounds, gave the Fighting Hawks good field position and a head start on their eight-play drive into field goal range. With 57 seconds left on the clock, North Dakota nailed a go-ahead 46-yard field goal.
With all three timeouts still remaining, UC Davis had a legitimate opportunity to drive down the field and set up a game-winning field goal attempt. A pair of 17-yard completions to sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam and Preece got the drive up and running, and it looked like the Aggies would give senior kicker Max O’Rourke a makeable field goal attempt well within his range.
Then, at the worst possible moment, a pair of damaging penalties pushed UC Davis completely out of field goal range. On a manageable third-and-four play from the North Dakota 30-yard line, the Aggies were called for a false start, setting up a longer third down attempt that they failed to convert.
O’Rourke trotted out to attempt a career-long 52-yard field goal, but the kick was blocked by North Dakota amidst penalty flags and a whistle from the referee, who called a “delay of game” penalty on UC Davis. Subsequently, the Aggies had no choice but to bring the offense back on the field for a lengthy fourth-and-14 situation, where Maier’s pass fell incomplete to end the game.
In his weekly press conference on Monday, Hawkins took the blame for mishandling the situation and failing to make a definitive decision on whether to attempt a field goal or keep the offense on the field. Normally, senior kickoff specialist Matt Blair is the go-to guy for long field goals beyond O’Rourke’s range, but Blair was unavailable at the time due to an injury to his holder, sophomore wide receiver Carson Crawford.
UC Davis looked like a completely different football team in the second half, compared to the first 30 minutes of play where the Aggies were outgained 381-176 in total yards of offense. But the Aggies refused to give up easily and seemed determined to atone for their early struggles in all three phases of the game.
The UC Davis defense completely flipped the script in the second half, showing a renewed confidence and continually forcing the North Dakota offense off the field in a flash. With the exception of the home team’s final game-winning drive, North Dakota never possessed the ball for more than six plays, giving the Aggie offense ample time to mount a comeback.
“The thing that pleased me the most was our approach to it,” Hawkins said. “They were communicating, talking and problem solving. We know its a long game and we can score points, so don’t panic and just hang in there. Our approach was much better than the week before.”
Unfortunately, costly penalties and a few more uncharacteristic turnovers — a common theme in last week’s blowout loss to Montana — doomed the Aggie offense at the end of the day.
Preece simply could not be guarded in the third and fourth quarters, hauling in all three Aggie touchdowns and using his sizable frame to create separation downfield and break free from defenders.
The Aggies received the opening kickoff of the second half and instantly found paydirt three plays later, thanks to a 40-yard catch by freshman tight end Blake Thorpe and a wide-open 31-yard touchdown pass to Preece.
Midway through the third quarter, UC Davis turned the ball over for the first time when a quick screen pass slipped through the hands of freshman wide receiver Orlando Ornelas and right to a North Dakota defender. The Fighting Hawks only had to march 13 yards to tack on another seven points, extending the lead to 35-21.
Early in the fourth quarter, senior linebacker Eric Flowers came up with a clutch interception, setting up the offense in enemy territory with a great opportunity to tie the score. On the very next play, Maier noticed single coverage downfield and took a deep shot to the end zone, but was picked off by a diving North Dakota defender.
The Davis defense did its job and forced a quick three-and-out, but Maier was picked off again on the next drive. On a long 4th-and-14 inside Fighting Hawk territory, Hawkins opted to go for it instead of punting, so Maier desperately heaved an ugly interception that was returned 58 yards to the Aggie 21-yard line.
Once again, the defense rose to the occasion and quickly forced a missed 37-yard field goal, paving the way for the late go-ahead touchdown drive.
Through the first six games of the season, Maier has already thrown nine interceptions, which is one shy of his season-long totals in both 2017 and 2018. Most of the turnovers have come in tough road environments, as Maier fired two interceptions at San Diego and three more at North Dakota State.
“I don’t think he’s a guy that’s blatantly careless with the ball,” Hawkins said. “He’s had some errant interceptions the last few weeks, but also some that are not always his fault. It’s going to happen when you throw the ball as much as we do.”
The senior signal caller had to operate without star junior wide receiver Jared Harrell, who’s been sidelined with injuries the past two weeks, as well as junior running back Tehran Thomas who did not play on Saturday.
Nonetheless, Maier still threw for over 350 yards and four touchdowns, connecting with 11 different receivers and making enough plays to put his team in a position to win. He leaned on one of his favorite targets, Crawford, who led the team with five receptions and 88 yards before leaving with a shoulder injury.
For a second consecutive game, UC Davis was unable to establish an effective rushing attack, managing just 3.1 yards per carry on 26 attempts. Gilliam scored on a two-yard touchdown run in the first half, but was largely contained by the North Dakota defense for most of the afternoon.
On the flip side, the Aggie defense continued its struggles in stopping the run, yielding 187 yards and 5.3 yards per attempt. UC Davis has given up at least 174 yards on the ground in five of the first six games. Improving in this area of the game will be a major point of emphasis for the team as it moves forward into the rest of the Big Sky schedule.
The Ags will have their hands full with next week’s opponent, Cal Poly, who utilizes a run-first offense that’s averaging over 255 rushing yards per game.
A pair of long flights to North Dakota in the past three weeks have surely taken some sort of toll on the players, whether they want to admit it or not. The Aggies undoubtedly have to play better and clean up the mistakes, but this year’s schedule has done them no favors.
“It’s amazing how every game has been something different — how we travel, where we travel, the weather, inside or outside, night or day,” Hawkins said. “But that’s also life. As you looked at the schedule before it played out, you knew it would be a tough battle every week.”
Fortunately for UC Davis, the team only has one more long flight remaining, a trip to face Southern Utah in two weeks. The Aggies will be glad to return home to UC Davis Health Stadium this Saturday for a rivalry showdown against Cal Poly, with the Golden Horseshoe trophy on the line.
After that, the only road travels remaining are a pair of short journeys to Portland State and Sacramento State.
With two conference losses already, UC Davis has put itself in an extremely tough position to defend its Big Sky title. In the past 13 years, the winner of the conference has never lost more than one league contest.
“Do we have the capability of going to the National Championship? Yes, we do,” Hawkins said. “But it’s not that far of a drop to that next rung. We shouldn’t really be battling expectations or rankings. It should just be getting up and being the best version of ourselves.”
Regardless, there will be more than enough opportunities for redemption in these final two months of the season, when UC Davis hosts top contenders Montana State and Weber State and travels to Sacramento State. A total of four Big Sky teams made the FCS playoffs last year, including three in the top eight, so a second consecutive playoff berth is not out of the realm of possibilities for UC Davis.
“Other than the Montana game, I’ve been really pleased with how our guys are playing, fighting and battling,” Hawkins said. “We’ve been playing good football against good football teams, so it just comes down to that slim margin of error.”
The Aggies still control their own destiny and have time on their side, but the team must start piling up wins in a hurry if they want to save their season.
Written by: Brendan Ogburn — firstname.lastname@example.org