Aggies keep playoff hopes alive with second straight win

Aggies keep playoff hopes alive with second straight win

Photo Credits: C.K. Hicks / UC Davis Athletics. UC Davis defensive backs Erron Duncan (16, left) and Sean Harlston (9,middle right) tackle Southern Utah quarterback Chris Helbig (8,middle) during a play. The Aggies won its fifth game of the season 33-25 against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds to improve to a record of 4-4. The game was held at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City, Utah on October 19, 2019.

UC Davis withstands late comeback to beat Southern Utah

The UC Davis football team hung on to capture its second consecutive victory on Saturday night, slipping past Southern Utah by a final score of 33-25 in Cedar City, UT. 

The Aggies jumped out to a 26-0 lead in the first half but let the home team mount a large comeback in the second half, making the final minutes of the game much more tense than they needed to be.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to know not to walk away from this and feel bad about it,” said UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins, during his weekly press conference on Monday. “We’re trying to score one more point than the other team and get better. I give our players and staff a lot of credit for winning on the road.”

Saturday’s contest was very similar to last week’s 48-24 win over Cal Poly in which UC Davis led 34-0, but had to make meaningful plays late in the game to avoid complete disaster.

“For whatever reason, our guys are better with their backs against the wall,” Hawkins said. “They do not like smooth sailing. The saying is ‘smooth waters never made a good sailor’ and they like it when the wind blows and the ship starts rocking. I joked that maybe we should spot whoever we’re playing 14 points and then start the game.”

With the victory over Southern Utah, the last-place team in the Big Sky, the Aggies improved their record to 4-4 on the season and 2-2 in conference play, setting up a likely season-defining showdown against first-place Weber State this upcoming Saturday. UC Davis is ranked No. 22 in the nation in both the media and coaches polls, while Weber State is in the top five.

Realistically, UC Davis cannot afford to lose another game this season if it hopes to reach the 24-team FCS playoffs. The team will have to be at its absolute best and exert a complete effort for all four quarters to have a chance at beating the defending co-Big Sky champions. 

Despite the way in which the second half developed against Southern Utah, there were a lot of bright spots for UC Davis on both sides of the football. 

Offensively, the Aggies were simply unstoppable in the first half, scoring touchdowns on four of their five possessions and amassing 306 total yards. Senior quarterback Jake Maier was nearly flawless, completing 18-of-25 attempts for 200 yards and a trio of touchdowns. Late in the second quarter, Maier connected with senior tight end Wes Preece on a 34-yard completion and officially surpassed 10,000 career passing yards — a feat only accomplished once before in school history by J.T. O’Sullivan in 2001. 

Maier only needs 631 more passing yards to break O’Sullivan’s career record and also has an outside shot to top the career passing touchdowns list, needing 15 more. As of now, Maier already holds the school records for completions in a single season and career.  

“It’s great to see him go over 10,000 yards at a place that has a tremendous quarterback tradition,” Hawkins said. “Too see him eclipse that mark is great and it’s obviously a credit to [offensive coordinator] Tim Plough.”

Meanwhile, sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam had an impressive first half himself, rumbling for 85 yards and a score on the way to his third 100-yard game of the season. 

With junior running back Tehran Thomas still sidelined with an injury, junior Christoph Hirota and sophomore Niko Harris handled a half-dozen carries each, experiencing some extended play time for the first time in their careers. 

Saturday night was the culmination of a very unique journey for Harris, who previously played quarterback in high school before switching over to a wide receiver and running back role at UC Davis. Harris has been able to overcome a number of injury struggles, most notably when he suffered a knee injury during his senior season in high school but recovered in time to lead his team to victory in a state championship game. 

On defense, UC Davis did not allow Southern Utah to reach the red zone a single time in the opening 30 minutes, forcing three punts and a missed field goal before conceding a touchdown just before halftime. By the end of the night, linebackers Connor Airey and Eric Flowers racked up 10 tackles each. Flowers has been the team’s leading tackler through the first eight games, while Airey follows closely behind in third.   

The Aggies received the opening kickoff and promptly drove 75 yards on just nine plays to score the game’s first points, when redshirt freshman wide receiver Lance Babb made a leaping touchdown catch with a defender in his face. 

On its next possession, the Aggie offense came right back with a methodical 90-yard touchdown drive, capped off when junior wide receiver Khris Vaughn caught an underneath crossing route and scampered 22 yards down the sideline to the endzone. 

Early in the second quarter, the Aggies benefitted from a bizarre string of penalties following a one-yard completion to Vaughn. Two unsportsmanlike conduct calls and a targeting penalty, which resulted in an ejection for the Thunderbird defender, resulted in a 26-yard gain for UC Davis, paving the way for a three-yard touchdown run by Gilliam to make it 19-0. 

On the Aggies’ final possession before halftime, Maier cemented himself into the UC Davis record books and the Aggies tacked on seven more points, with Maier finding Preece in the corner of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown.

Southern Utah put together a long touchdown drive shortly before halftime, so the Aggies took a commanding 26-7 lead into the locker room.

UC Davis came out firing on its first offensive possession of the second half and crafted a lengthy 85-yard drive of five and a half minutes. Harris found the end zone for the first time in his career on a four-yard run and the Aggies were in total control, holding a 33-7 advantage with under 20 minutes left to play. 

From then on, UC Davis gained just 57 yards on the next 13 plays and gave Southern Utah the chance to chip away at the lead. 

Early in the fourth quarter, the Thunderbirds scored two touchdowns in just over four minutes and suddenly found themselves trailing by only 11 points. 

It wasn’t until Gilliam recovered an onside kick with 59 seconds remaining that the Aggies could finally breathe a sigh of relief and begin to celebrate the victory.  

UC Davis will return home to the comforts of UC Davis Health Stadium to take on Weber State for a 4 p.m. kickoff on Saturday afternoon. The Aggies will aim to snap a three-game losing streak versus the Wildcats and keep their playoff hopes alive, but will need the help of a loud home field crowd to get the job done. 

The UC Davis defense will have its hands full with Weber State running back Josh Davis, who ran for a school record 328 yards in last week’s 51-28 win over Northern Arizona. The Wildcats offense presents a significant contrast in style compared to the Aggies’ previous two opponents.

“It’s another physical game in the Big Sky,” Hawkins said. “You go to three ends of the spectrum facing a triple-option team, a true spread team and now a team that will line up and hammer you. It’s quite a task for our defense to adjust.”

Three of the four remaining opponents on the schedule are currently ranked in the top nine of the FCS coaches poll, but the Aggies are solely focused on improving and playing their best football.

“We know how good the Big Sky is, but we try not to get too hung up in the rankings,” Hawkins said. “It will be lots of really good teams, great opponents and opportunities for us to finish on a great note.”

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org