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Davis, California

Monday, February 26, 2024

Record crowd sees Aggies retain Golden Horseshoe

UC Davis gets back on track with 48-24 rivalry win

The UC Davis football team put its three-game losing streak to bed after Saturday evening’s 48-24 victory over visiting Cal Poly, winning the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe for a third consecutive year.

The Aggies’ victory on Homecoming weekend was seen by a lively crowd of 11,194, a new attendance record at 13-year old UC Davis Health Stadium and the largest crowd of any kind since a 1982 contest at the old Toomey Field.

With playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the Aggies (now 3-4) came out firing in the first half and scored on each of their first six possessions, jumping up to what seemed like an insurmountable 34-0 lead at the time.

But Cal Poly quickly flipped the script and rattled off 24 unanswered points, threatening to spell complete disaster for an Aggie team that has already been dealt numerous blows in the past three weeks.

In an effort to ignite a stagnant offense in the fourth quarter, Hawkins left the offense on the field for a fourth down play down inside the UC Davis 35-yard line. But the Aggies did not convert, giving Cal Poly prime field position to make it a one-possession game, down 34-24 with over 11 minutes left to play.

Three plays later, redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Eaton made the play that likely saved the season for UC Davis. Cal Poly ran a toss play to the running back, but Eaton broke through the line of scrimmage and intercepted the backwards pitch before sprinting 78 yards for a victory-sealing touchdown.

“On that specific play, they tossed the ball to my side and I controlled the C-gap, stuck my hand out and made a play on the ball,” Eaton said. “I saw the open field and once I secured the ball, I just kicked into high horse and ran as fast as I could.”

It was truly a tale of two halves for the Aggie offense, which amassed a season-high 408 yards of total offense in the opening 30 minutes and moved the ball up and down the field at will. At the end of the night, UC Davis also established season highs with 48 points scored, 194 rushing yards and 588 total yards.

After halftime, the offense went completely silent, racking up just three first downs up until Eaton’s game-changing turnover, before a late garbage-time touchdown.

Sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam ran for a career-high 152 yards, including 105 in the first half, and scored twice on a five-yard run and 37-yard catch-and-run.

Early in the second quarter, senior quarterback Jake Maier surveyed the defense at the line of scrimmage and audibled to a different play, freeing up Gilliam for an easy 37-yard stroll to the endzone when Cal Poly blitzed its linebackers and safeties.

Maier also connected with junior wide receiver Khris Vaughn for eight completions and two touchdowns. In the first quarter, Vaughn ran an inside slant and out-muscled the cornerback for the football, before streaking untouched for 55 yards to the end zone.

Vaughn, who set a career high with 148 receiving yards, was the latest Aggie wideout to step up and carry the load. The receiving corps has had its fair share of injury troubles in recent weeks, with junior Jared Harrell forced to sit out last week and sophomore Carson Crawford out for the foreseeable future with a serious ankle injury. Harrell made his return on Saturday and scored a 14-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

“Coach [Tim] Plough knows what these guys [the receivers] do well and puts them in a position to do well,” Hawkins said. “The guys are ready to go and we have full confidence in them. We tell them to quit thinking of yourself as a starter and think of yourself as a contributor. Do something well consistently and then we’ll use you.”

Vaughn is all too familiar with the injury bug, having missed the majority of his first two seasons, but Hawkins absolutely raves about the work ethic and preparation he’s showed in his “hero’s journey” as an Aggie.  

“Nobody works harder or invests more time than this guy,” Hawkins said. “It’s not a shocker that you see him continue to get better. At times when he could’ve moped or felt sorry for himself, he never did.”

“I train like I fight and fight like I train,” Vaughn added. “Obviously being hurt the first couple years is kind of hard, but if you stay in it, it’s just about the details.”

Cal Poly’s second-half surge put a slight damper on what was shaping up to be an overpowering bounce-back performance for UC Davis. The Aggie defense started out doing an excellent job suffocating the Mustang rushing attack, the primary focus of their entire offense, forcing four punts and a turnover to begin the game.

But UC Davis got a little too comfortable stacking the box to stop the run and left itself vulnerable to huge passing gains down the field, which Cal Poly exploited several times to get back into the game. Long pass completions of 36 and 43 yards were the big chunk plays that helped catapult the visitors to 10 straight points just before halftime, closing the deficit to 34-10. Then in the third quarter, disaster struck for the Aggie defense when Cal Poly torched the secondary on passing touchdowns of 51 and 69 yards.

Fortunately for UC Davis, the defense finished strong with Eaton’s turnover and a pair of three-and-out’s to end the game.

The Aggies had more success in the turnover department on Saturday, as junior defensive back Isaiah Thomas grabbed two interceptions along with Eaton’s fumble recovery. Saturday’s game was the first time this season UC Davis did not surrender a turnover on offense.

With the victory, UC Davis kept itself alive in the FCS playoff conversation, but the team will likely have to win its final five games to have a realistic shot at receiving one of the 14 at-large bids reserved for teams that don’t win their conference title. Only one team, Northern Iowa, made the playoffs last year with five losses, so UC Davis can hardly afford any more defeats the rest of the way. But none of that matters to anybody inside the Aggie locker room because Hawkins has cultivated a culture centered around players putting forth their best effort and not focusing on wins and losses.

“Every week we turn the page and just continue to do our job and grind,” Eaton explained. “We don’t look at the results here at Davis. Everything is individual, and you find your role and thrive in your role.”

           UC Davis will hit the road once again this weekend for a showdown with Southern Utah in Cedar City, Utah. The Thunderbirds are currently the worst team in the Big Sky conference with a record of 1-6, but the Aggies certainly won’t take them lightly.

“We’ve got to continue to do the things necessary to achieve what’s possible and relentlessly pursue the details and improvement,” Hawkins said. “If we keep doing that, we’ll be as good as we can be.”

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org


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