Unpredictable season reaches finish line for Aggie football

Unpredictable season reaches finish line for Aggie football

Photo Credits: JUSTIN HAN / AGGIE. From left to right: UC Davis wide receiver Khris Vaughn (9) carries the ball to reach the 1 yard line during the first home game of the season against LeHigh. UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier (15) looks to make a pass as the Cal defense closes in on him during the first game of the season at Cal. UC Davis running back Ulonzo Gilliam (34) rushes to gain yardage during a home game against Cal Poly.

UC Davis endures the highs, lows of a disappointing fall

It is hard to believe that the 2019 season is already in the books for the UC Davis football team. The journey over the past three months was a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions, with each week providing a different twist to the tale. 

When this adventure finally reached its conclusion, the only thing remaining was a disappointing 5-7 record that left something to be desired. UC Davis was never short on talent or ability, but simply lacked the final touch to push itself over the line and become a great team — instead of just a good team with high aspirations. 

Although the ball didn’t always roll their way, the Aggies still managed to put together one heck of an interesting season and left us with a multitude of storylines to look back on. 

Dealing with expectations

Following what was widely considered to be the program’s greatest season in its 101-year history, expectations were sky-high heading into this fall. The Aggies had good reason to believe they could defend their Big Sky Conference title and make a return to the FCS playoffs, where they earned a first round bye and defeated Northern Iowa before bowing out to Eastern Washington in a thrilling battle. UC Davis received a fair amount of recognition leading up to the 2019 season, placing in the top-five of several preseason rankings polls and garnering numerous individual honors. 

Although former Walter Payton Award finalist Keelan Doss moved on to the NFL, the Aggies still entered the season with all the tools for a lethal offensive attack, led by senior quarterback Jake Maier, last year’s Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. 

Even as frustrating losses started to mount, the team never navigated away from its core principles of staying focused on the process, instead of getting caught up in the results and outside chatter. The only outlier to this mentality was an ugly 45-20 home loss to Montana in late September when Head Coach Dan Hawkins felt his team got caught up in the expectations and stopped having fun playing the game. Besides that one performance, Hawkins was extremely pleased with the team’s mindset in every other week of the season. 

Although the players inside the locker room took it one week at a time with the same focus, other teams around the league seemed to have extra incentive to knock the Aggies off their perch. 

“When you go win the championship, every team and staff that plays you will go research the heck out of you, figure out how to stop you and study your film,” Hawkins said after the Montana loss. “They’re gearing up for you.”

Mastering the details

Throughout the season, Hawkins frequently referenced the need for his team to clean up the avoidable mistakes and be more methodical with executing the small, vital details necessary for long-term success. This was one of the main themes of the entire season and a key factor differentiating the 2018 team from this year’s squad. 

Just like last season, the Aggies played in many tight games decided in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The team suffered from a little bit of bad luck, yet UC Davis did itself no favors by committing crucial penalties in the biggest moments and making minor but fundamental mistakes that wound up costing it wins. The Aggies often struggled with open-field tackling and dropped passes. Overall, the Aggies just seemed to lack a certain sharpness in many of their performances and could never get firing on all cylinders for extended periods of time. They put themselves in situations to succeed, but the overall execution was slightly awry, leaving room for improvement.

“When everything goes well and you score 50 points in a win, everyone tells you how great you are,” Maier said, following the loss to Montana. “When [losses] like this happen, 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.”

In a memorable showdown against North Dakota State, UC Davis outgained the Bison and was in position to win the game late in the fourth quarter, but a pair of Maier interceptions and some untimely penalties proved to be the difference. Two weeks later, the Aggies once again traveled to face the University of North Dakota, but were unable to close out a win in the final minute largely due to some late mental errors and multiple penalties. 

Both road losses could have easily changed the course of the season had a few plays gone differently and the Aggies came out on top. But, as Hawkins always says, every game comes down to about three plays, and UC Davis simply could not get the job done.

Inconsistency

As the season wore on, UC Davis kept finding itself on the wrong end of these close games and could not find a way to climb out of the hole and string together some momentum. Every week felt like a roller coaster of its own, and the exhausting whirlwind of fortunes surely had to take a toll on the team after a while. 

If the Aggies had been able to pull out a win in either one of their trips to North Dakota, the season could have looked a lot different. But that early three-game losing streak, coupled with a brutal home record at UC Davis Health Stadium, prevented the Aggies from turning their season around.

Offensively, the Aggies were wildly inconsistent, rattling off points in bunches at times but then going completely silent for long streaks. The team was continually plagued by lengthy scoring droughts that kept the defense on the field for long periods of time. This was not exactly an unfamiliar problem for UC Davis, as last year’s 10-win team dealt with the same issues on several occasions. The only difference was that the 2019 Aggies were not clinical enough in crunch time, failing to step up and make enough meaningful plays to wrestle victory from the jaws of defeat. 

Injuries

Like most every team, UC Davis had to deal with nagging injuries to some key players throughout the season. And with a late bye in the schedule following nine straight games, there was hardly any time to rest and heal up. 

On offense, the Aggies lost two important playmakers early in the season, forcing other teammates to step up and carry the load. Sophomore wide receiver Carson Crawford was an instrumental part of the aerial attack, but barely made it out of September before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in the loss to North Dakota. Junior running back Tehran Thomas, an effective change-of-pace weapon in the backfield, got nicked up in the first month of play and had to sit out the final seven games. 

As a result, sophomore tailback Ulonzo Gilliam was thrust into the spotlight, a position he took full advantage of. Gilliam, an All-Big Sky Second Team honoree, took almost every snap at the running back position after Thomas’ injury and was the Big Sky’s leading rusher with 1,249 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had five games with 100+ yards and also proved to be a valuable asset in the passing game, leading the team in catches. 

In the absence of Crawford, junior Khris Vaughn and redshirt freshman Lance Babb II became the primary receiving options on the outside, combining for over 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns. 

Young superstars emerge on defense

If nothing else, the 2019 season provided the platform for a pair of young defensive superstars to burst onto the scene. 

Sophomore defensive back Devon King was already a known commodity around the Big Sky, having started 11 games as a freshman and earning Hero Sports First Team Freshman All-American honors. But King turned things up a notch and took his ballhawking abilities to another level this year, racking up team high’s in solo tackles (62) and interceptions (3). King, the only Aggie to be named to the All-Big Sky Conference First Team, will continue to be the leader of the secondary for a couple more years. 

Redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Eaton was equally as impressive from start to finish, playing in all 12 games and establishing himself as a force in the middle of the defense. Eaton, who led UC Davis in tackles for loss (12), sacks (6.5), pass breakups (6) and forced fumbles (5), developed a knack for making impactful plays when his team needed them most. As a result, he took home several accolades, including the Big Sky Freshman of the Year. He was also one of the 20 finalists for the Jerry Rice Award, which recognizes the top freshman in the entire FCS.

The hero’s journey

It is impossible to ignore the strenuous conditions UC Davis was faced with from the outset, starting with a daunting schedule of just five home games and nine consecutive weeks of action before the bye week. A pair of trips to North Dakota in three weeks, both ending in heartbreaking defeat, put the Aggies behind the eight ball and significantly decreased the margin for error before conference play even began. 

Overall, UC Davis knew it had to be on its “A” game every single week with a slate of talented opponents that included seven eventual playoff teams and five of the top-six ranked teams in the FCS postseason bracket. The Aggies went just 1-6 in those contests, only beating San Diego on the road in week two. 

Each Saturday provided a unique challenge in its own right, with every Aggie foe bringing different attributes and strengths to the table. At one point in October, defensive coordinator Robert Tucker and his unit had to prepare for three contrasting styles of offense in three weeks, battling the triple-option attack, spread offense and a traditional power run game. This provided some serious challenges for the coaching staff and scout team, who were responsible for implementing a game plan and getting the starters prepared in practice. 

Never a dull moment

Through all the ups and downs of the last three months, UC Davis never failed to keep its fans on the edge of their seats. Early on, the Aggies came relatively close to upsetting California and then grabbed their first victory over San Diego when King saved the day with a forced fumble at the goal line on the final play of the game. During consecutive wins against Cal Poly and Southern Utah in October, the Aggies started fast but almost squandered huge leads by letting their opponents mount large second half comebacks.

“For whatever reason, our guys are better with their backs against the wall,” Hawkins said, following the win over Southern Utah. “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.”

In season-defining losses to Weber State, Montana State and Sacramento State, UC Davis had ample opportunities to seize control of the game in the second half but failed to get the job done in the fourth quarter. 

Overall, Davis was competitive in every single game outside of the blowout defeat against Montana. 

“It’s probably the first time in my two and a half years here that I felt like we got out-coached, out-energied, out-executed and out-desired,” Hawkins later admitted.

Looking back, a 45-28 win over Portland State in early November was likely the most complete performance of the season. The Aggies, fresh off their bye week, piled up a season-high 649 yards on offense and thoroughly dominated for four quarters. 

“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,” Hawkins said after the game.

Maier says goodbye

UC Davis fans got to enjoy one last season of watching Maier call the signals under center. The second-year transfer from Long Beach City College officially finished his career as the all-time leading passer in program history, amassing 11,163 yards and shattering numerous other statistical records.

Beyond the X’s and O’s, Maier garnered unlimited praise from everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him. He built a reputation on being an unbelievable teammate, a selfless leader and an individual who represented the school in a classy and respectful manner. Each week, opposing head coaches always had something nice to say about Maier, who never failed to leave a positive impression on everyone around him. Hawkins could talk for hours about Maier’s lasting impact on the program and was cognizant of the “thousand invisible moments” that Maier expended to become such a successful player. 

“Last year, one of the key reasons why we won a championship and Davis football turned a corner is because of Jake Maier,” Hawkins said after the loss to Montana State. “You’re not going to be around a more humble, hard-working and dedicated person. He’s got an unbelievable rage to master his craft. For a school that’s had as many great quarterbacks, he’s going to go down as arguably the best guy to ever play at UC Davis.”

The future is bright

Like most years, UC Davis will be hit hard with the loss of 18 graduating seniors. There will be lots of holes to fill, especially on the defensive side of the ball where defensive linemen Jordan Franklin and Brandon Jamison and linebackers Nas Anesi and Eric Flowers will all have to be replaced. 

Obviously, the search for a new starting quarterback will be one of the main talking points leading up to the 2020 season. Hawkins has recruited heavily at the position and currently has five players to choose from, in advance of another incoming freshman class. 

There is a ton of talent left on this roster and more help on the way, as Hawkins and his staff have continued to churn out stacked recruiting classes every year. 

The fall of 2019 was an unfortunate stumbling block along what promises to be a special journey in the Dan Hawkins era of UC Davis football. Hopefully we will look back on this season as a valuable learning experience that provided opportunities for growth and development.

At the end of the day, the college football experience is supposed to serve as a metaphor for life in general. And as we all know, Coach Hawkins is a fan of a good metaphor. 

“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,” he explained in late September. “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.”

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org