No. 9 Eastern Washington outlasts No. 11 UC Davis in a matchup with major playoff implications
In a game that could be considered make it or break it in terms of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs, the UC Davis Aggies fell to the Eastern Washington Eagles, 32-22. With the Eagles ranked No. 9 and the Aggies a bit behind at No.11, the winner of this matchup would be set up with a great opportunity to take one of the five at-large bids for this year’s playoffs.
In the first UC Davis Athletics game with fans allowed inside, a socially distanced crowd of 1720 people set foot in UC Davis Health Stadium for this prime FCS matchup. A clear and sunny day made it for a perfect football setting, as the Aggies felt refreshed to have fans back for the first time this spring season.
“It was so much better,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Trent Tompkins after the game. “Hearing people yell and stuff and boo, it was awesome. Versus Cal Poly and Idaho State, it got awkward sometimes just sitting on the sideline. I stood there in the first quarter just looking around and I was confused for a second. So yeah, it was awesome.”
With Eastern Washington receiving the ball to start the game, the Eagles had a chance to show their flexibility on offense, running a 13-play drive of both runs and passes. Led by senior quarterback Eric Barriere, who has received some National Football League (NFL) buzz, Eastern Washington drove the ball down to the UC Davis 10 yard line. A strong stop by the Aggie defense that has impressed thus far, however, held the Eagles to just a field goal, as they opened up the scoring of the day.
After a penalty by the Aggies on their offensive drive set them back, Eastern Washington took over once again on offense. Firing on all cylinders, Barriere completed consecutive 20-yard passes to wide receiver Freddie Roberson and eventually found Anthony Stell Jr. for a short touchdown after UC Davis’ Jaylin White was called for pass interference. With a 10-0 lead and back to back 10+ play drives, the Aggies knew they would have their hands full the rest of the game with the high powered Eagles offense.
Looking to respond before the game got out of hand, the Aggies found a bit of a groove on offense. A pass by junior starting quarterback Hunter Rodrigues to senior wide receiver Khris Vaughn for 39 yards gave them some life and they were knocking on the door of the endzone. After three plays in a goal situation, UC Davis was unable to punch it in, but got down to the one-yard line. With a decision to make, head coach Dan Hawkins elected to go for it on fourth down. In a huge play that would eventually loom large in the grand scheme of things, Eastern Washington got the stop and forced the turnover, leaving the Aggies empty handed after that impressive drive.
It was a big blow for UC Davis, as a touchdown would have put them right back in it. Instead, it was still 10-0 and Eastern Washington now had a chance to increase their lead heading into the second quarter. But, after a pass by Barriere across the middle came off of his receiver’s arms, the ball shot in the air and redshirt freshman Jehiel Budgett was able to make the diving play to get under it and secure the interception. The play was exactly what the Aggies needed. With great field position near midfield and the crowd active, UC Davis had an opportunity to respond. But, after gaining a first down on the first play of the drive, the Aggies were unable to get another, and punted the ball back to the Eagles. In a drive that took a total of 22 plays, more than nine minutes and almost the length of the field, Eastern Washington was able to convert two fourth down plays and three third-downs to punch in yet another touchdown. After a failed two-point conversion, the game now stood at 16-0 Eagles.
Another three-and-out by UC Davis marked the end of the half, with a lot of ground to make up. With the ball back to start the second half, they needed a big play to be the catalyst and avoid the game getting out of hand. They were able to get just that, as a 44-yard strike from Rodrigues to sophomore tight end McCallan Castles put them on the board for the first time all afternoon. A successful two-point conversion by the Aggies now made it a one possession game, 16-8.
With the crowd of over 1700 getting loud, UC Davis was able to get a stop on defense and get the ball back in just 2 minutes and 29 seconds. They were feeling some momentum, but were unable to capitalize and punted it away. After two more punts by both sides—one for each—Eastern Washington got the ball back with their eight point lead still intact. All it took was one play to extend their lead, as Barriere fired a deep shot down the right sideline to redshirt senior Talolo Limu Jones for 77-yards and the touchdown. This was a huge blow for the Aggies, as they now faced a 22-8 deficit with 6 minutes and 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
A change at the quarterback slot saw Tompkins come in to add another dimension to the offense. With his ability to throw and run it himself, UC Davis was able to use his threat to an advantage. A 23-yard rush by freshman receiver C.J. Hutton gave the Aggies some life, and Tompkins was able to find junior receiver Carson Crawford in the endzone for the score. With it being a one-possession game once again, they hoped for another stop and a chance to tie or possibly take the lead.
Entering the fourth quarter with the Eagles on top by a score of 22-15, they needed a response to the Aggie momentum. All it took was one play to start the fourth quarter, as Roberson was able to find some room and make a move to run in for a touchdown from 42 yards out. Now a 29-15 game, time was running thin for UC Davis. Looking for something to happen, the Aggies hurried it up on offense and were able to put together an 11-play, 81 yard touchdown drive in just under four minutes. A Tompkins touchdown run now made it 29-22 with 11 minutes and 11 seconds remaining in the ballgame.
As Eastern Washington looked to burn out the clock, they were able to use their rhythm on offense to set up a nice offensive drive. Barriere had his offense rolling, but a nice third down stop by the Aggies set up the Eagles with a decision to make from the UC Davis 28 yard line. That was, until the referees decided to review the previous tackle made by senior linebacker Cole Hansen. The officials looked for targeting, a rule put in place to ensure the safety of the athletes and try to eliminate dangerous collisons. It was a hard play to call, but after a lengthy review that took a couple of minutes, the referees determined that it was in fact targeting, ejecting Hansen and giving the Eagles another 15 yards and an automatic first down. It was a huge blow to UC Davis’ chances as the penalty gave Eastern Washington the chance to kick a field goal and go up 10 points with about 5 minutes and 28 seconds remaining.
“Every time we tried to get a little momentum going in the second half, they countered. So give them a lot of credit. They did a nice job.” Hawkins said.
The Aggies needed something quick, but with multiple running plays and short passes, they were burning away crucial time. After getting down to the Eastern Washington eight-yard line, Hawkins elected to go for it and failed, effectively bringing an end to the game. All it took was the Eagles to run one more first down, ending the game and leaving Davis, CA with a 32-22 win.
“They’re a good football team,” Hawkins said postgame. “They made plays when they had to and you got to give them a lot of credit for that. [They had] good quarterback play and were able to move it and convert and eat up clock, particularly in the first half.”
The UC Davis passing game never really got into a good flow, as they only attempted 225 passes and starter Rodgrigues only had 14 attempts himself. On the other hand, they were once again run heavy, running it 42 times for 218 yards, with freshman Lan Larison gaining a team-high 81. Larison was a nice replacement for junior star running back Ulonzo Gilliam, who missed the last two games for the Aggies and could be seen with a walking boot on the sideline. In the end, the Aggies’ inability to score on two of their four redzone possessions ended up being a major factor in the game’s outcome.
On the Eastern Washington side, Barriere showed why he is an NFL prospect, throwing for 392 yards and three touchdowns while also running for 43 yards. He was not sacked once, as his mobility and elusiveness let him evade UC Davis rushers on multiple occasions. His receiver Limu-Jones had a game high 10 receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns and caused problems for the Aggies all game long. Holding the ball for 36 minutes and 6 seconds, they were in control and negated UC Davis from getting anything going on offense.
After Cal Poly football decided to opt-out of the rest of their season, this game marked the end of the regular season for the Aggies. With a record of 3-2 and close losses to two highly ranked teams—Eastern Washington and Weber State—the possibility of an at-large playoff berth is not over just yet. But, they must receive a lot of help from other scores for that to happen so for now, they must wait until April 18 to see if their season will continue. If this does in fact mark the end of the road for UC Davis, there were a lot of positives to take away from this very different year, as their difficult journey brought a lot of positives for the rising program.
“I thought we did a lot of positive things this year,” Hawkins said. “We came back against Idaho State, we came back against Idaho, won on the road. Battled Weber, came back even after they came back. There’s a lot of redeemable things there we just gotta continue to capture the details and raise our standards in everything we do.”
Written by: Omar Navarro — firstname.lastname@example.org