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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

UC Davis football gets back on track with offensive explosion

Aggies even record at 5-5 with two games remaining 

The UC Davis football team took full advantage of its bye week and came out focused and prepared in Saturday’s 45-28 win over Portland State in Hillsboro, Ore. 

The Aggie offense exploded for a season-high 649 total yards, averaging 8.95 per play, and benefited from an assortment of spectacular individual efforts. UC Davis struck serious damage with long yardage gains, gashing the Vikings on eight pass completions of 20 yards or greater and six runs of 15+ yards. 

“It’s not the wins that are satisfying,” said head coach Dan Hawkins during his weekly press conference on Monday afternoon. “It’s satisfying when you see guys step up, make growth, overcome obstacles, handle some issues. I think it was the first time this year we played off of each other in all three phases, which was really good to see.”

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Lance Babb II went off for the best performance of his young career, hauling in 10 of his 11 targets for 168 yards and a trio of touchdowns. 

“Lance Babb had a great game,” Hawkins said. “If you watch him practice, watch him train, watch his attention to detail and watch his passion, it’s really cool to see that come to fruition.” 

Babb wasn’t the only Aggie who enjoyed a career day, as sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. sprinted for a pair of scores and 242 yards on the ground. Gilliam’s rushing total, which included a career-long 75 yard touchdown run, was the fifth highest for a single game in program history.  

“It was probably the funnest thing to see him break the long one, which he’s been trying to get done, and how he handled the clock,” Hawkins said. “Some of his best runs were a lot more subtle, just in how he made people miss.”

Defensively, redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Eaton had one of the best games of his season as well, constantly flying around to the football and racking up a team-leading eight tackles and two forced fumbles, as well as a pair of sacks. The performance earned him Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. In the week leading up to the game, Eaton was one of 24 players added to the watch list for the Jerry Rice Award, which honors the best freshman player in the FCS.

UC Davis never trailed in Saturday’s contest and was always within striking distance of putting the game out of reach, but the Vikings were able to hang around for three quarters. The Aggies put the finishing touches on their fifth victory of the season with a 21-point fourth quarter and will now set their sights on the home finale against Montana State this upcoming Saturday at UC Davis Health Stadium. 

“We got a great opportunity, versus a ranked football team, to be able to step up against some good competition and come back home and get after it,” Hawkins said.

The Aggies, currently at 5-5, are seemingly a longshot to make the FCS playoffs, largely due to a costly, three-game midseason losing streak. Even so, the team will get a shot to bolster its resume and make one final case to the selection committee if it can find a way to knock off Montana State and Sacramento State to close the regular season. Both opponents will be ranked in the top-10 entering week 12, so the opportunity is there for UC Davis to grab peoples’ attention and re-enter the playoff conversation. 

“We’re not blind to the situation,” Hawkins said. “We’re playing two ranked teams at the end of the year and we’ve got to take care of business. Should we get on the plus side of the ledger in both of those games, we’re a playoff team. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. We’ve played a tough schedule.”

The Ags struck first on their second possession of the game, going up 7-0 when Babb caught an inside screen pass and weaved his way untouched for 26 yards to the end zone.

 After Portland State leveled the score at the start of the second quarter, the Aggies immediately responded on an 80-yard scoring drive, with Babb accounting for 31 of those yards. On third and goal, senior quarterback Jake Maier took the snap and rolled out to his left before scrambling all the way back to the right and lofting an off-balanced throw to Babb, who leaped over two defenders in the back of the end zone and somehow came down with the football with one foot in bounds.

On the next Aggie possession, Babb snagged a wide-open 44-yard catch down the sideline that would have went for an easy touchdown if he didn’t have to dive for the football. Kicker Max O’Rourke finished the drive with a 23-yard field goal, but Portland State scored a touchdown in the final minute of the quarter to cut the Aggie lead to 17-14 at halftime. 

Midway through the third quarter, Gilliam evaded one tackler en route to a 75-yard touchdown run, the longest offensive play of the season. 

The Vikings answered with a chunk play of their own, completing a 55-yard touchdown pass that made it 24-21 as the fourth quarter approached. 

Once again, Babb came to the rescue for UC Davis and pulled off more heroics, this time leaping for a 23-yard touchdown reception in between two defenders.

The Vikings countered with another seven points, but UC Davis refused to back down, striking instantly when junior wide receiver Khris Vaughn wrestled the football away from a defender and strolled home for a 58-yard scoring play.

Gilliam iced the game in the final minute with a shifty 19-yard touchdown run and UC Davis was finally able to escape the brisk, damp conditions of the Pacific Northwest. 

The Aggies will entertain one more home game on Saturday with a 4 p.m. kickoff against Montana State. It promises to be an emotional afternoon with Senior Day festivities and the final send off for Maier, who will go down as one of the greatest players to ever don the blue and gold of UC Davis.

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org


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