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Davis, California

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Despite slow start, UC Davis football finishes season with winning record

The Aggies miss the playoffs in the final game of the season against Sacramento State


By MARLON ROLON — sports@theaggie.org


Before the season started in a media press conference, UC Davis Head Coach Dan Hawkins claimed that this was the best football team in Aggie history. 

With that statement, all eyes were on UC Davis as they faced Cal in the season opener in Berkeley. Hawkins’ team looked promising in the game’s opening minutes, with the offense marching down the field to score a touchdown. It wasn’t just the offense that looked good though; Aggie defense took to the field, almost immediately stopping the Berkeley offense with an interception. Despite leading 7-0 in the first quarter, Cal beat UC Davis 34-13 in the contest. 

Then, the Aggies traveled to Brookings, South Dakota to face South Dakota State. UC Davis got off to a slow start and trailed the Jackrabbits 17-10 heading into the fourth quarter. The Aggies’ second-year quarterback Miles Hastings was throwing dimes, including a 68-yard pass to second-year running back Lan Larison. UC Davis outscored the Jackrabbits in the fourth quarter 12-7 but ultimately fell short (22-24) as the clock expired. A strong performance against a team that makes the postseason year in and year out proved that the Aggies had a strong unit, but the team’s record fell further to 0-2. 

In game No. 3, UC Davis claimed their first victory of the season. The Aggies played their first game at home against UC San Diego (UCSD) and gave the home crowd something to cheer about, beating UCSD 43-13. The win provided relief as the Aggies prepared to begin their Big Sky Conference schedule. 

UC Davis then hosted Weber State. The Wildcats reached the 2022 FCS postseason and defeated the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the first round in a close game that came down to the final play. The Aggies’ offense struggled against the Wildcats’ defense, which held UC Davis without a touchdown until the third quarter, in which Hastings attempted to go for a failed two-point conversion. Despite this, UC Davis still had an opportunity to win the game in the final drive on Weber State’s 15-yard line; however, the defense held up and Hastings failed to throw the winning pass into the endzone. The Aggies fell to 1-3; those three losses were against a Pac-12 team and two teams in the FCS who are top contenders.

With one of the most difficult scheduled opponents in the FCS, things didn’t get easier for the Aggies. The Montana State Bobcats, their next opponents, were 4-1 before they played UC Davis. 

Despite being on the road, the Aggies got off to a strong start in the first quarter as fourth-year star running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr., sprinted for 38 yards into the endzone, putting Davis up 7-0. UC Davis led 10-7 after the first quarter, but never led again, as the Bobcats roared back to win the game 41-24. Gilliam Jr.’s stellar performance was the bright spot in the game, as he rushed for 140 yards and scored a touchdown. The Aggies fell to 1-4, and their playoff hopes dwindled. 

The team looked like a far cry from the team that got off to an 8-1 start last season. With six games remaining, UC Davis needed to win all of its games to make the playoffs. By losing four of the first five games they played, that seemed like an unlikely feat. Regardless, Hawkins remained optimistic about his team’s chances. 

“It’s time to get on a roll,” Hawkins said in a post-game press conference after his team’s loss to Montana State. 

UC Davis did just that, beginning with a 56-27 win over Northern Arizona. The team’s offense was rolling with Hastings at the helm; he threw for 328 yards and had two touchdowns. Gilliam Jr. was also running the ball well, gaining 152 yards and scoring two touchdowns.

“It’s really impressive how they all stuck together to get a win like this. We got a bunch of guys into the game, and that was great, and we were able to score in a number of different ways,” Hawkins said. “Now, we just have to keep dialing it up and get ready for the next game.”

UC Davis built momentum one game at a time. They traveled to Colorado and defeated Northern Colorado, 58-10, improving their season record to 3-4. Once again, the team’s offense was fluid and certainly looked more like a playoff team.

“Our guys are getting some momentum, and a win like this helps build confidence,” Hawkins said. 

For the third straight game, the Aggies would score above the 50-point mark to beat Cal Poly 59-17. With each week, Hastings looked more comfortable in the pocket as he posted 425 yards along with four touchdowns. A strong run game is another reason the offense was starting to get on a roll. Gilliam Jr. rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns, and his longest run of the day was a 59-yard rush. The offensive line’s dynamic was causing teams trouble and was the perfect recipe for UC Davis’s team, who was seeking a chance to sneak into the postseason. 

“Our offense has found its groove,” Hawkins said. “We’re cooking in the pass game and in the run game. And the defense is getting turnovers and setting the offense up with great field position.”

The Aggies continued their win streak, defeating Idaho State and improving their record to 5-4. Davis’s defense was hot in this contest, allowing Idaho only three points for a final score of 43-3. 

The offense turned up yet again this time against the Idaho Vandals on the road and UC Davis extended their win streak to five straight games, defeating the Vandals 44-26. The run game was a major factor in the win; Gilliam Jr. rushed for a staggering 164 yards and three touchdowns. This game was special for Gilliam Jr., who broke the school rushing touchdown record of 40 that was held by Preston Jackson since the early 1990s. 

“We’ve been on a five-game playoff run with one more to go, so we have to win it to stay in it,” Hawkins said after defeating Idaho. “But it’s not really so much about winning as it is about playing well, and that’s what we did tonight. We were very efficient on offense, and we didn’t turn the ball over. Any time you can do that, you’re going to be successful.”

The win moved the Aggies to 6-4 on the season, and with five straight wins, UC Davis earned a ranking of No. 24 in the country for the FCS. With their impressive win streak, maybe this was the best team in Aggie history — Hawkins’ statement didn’t seem so far-fetched. 

UC Davis had to win one more game to reach the postseason, but it was going to be on the road against their undefeated rosstown rivals who were ranked No. 2 in the country: Sacramento State.

In a back-and-forth contest, UC Davis’s offense kept up with the Hornets’ offense the entire game. Going into the fourth quarter, the Aggies trailed 13-17, but Sac State’s fourth-year quarterback Asher O’Hara flipped into the endzone for what seemed to be a game-winning touchdown. However, Aggies second-year tight end Josh Gale caught a pass from Hastings and ran it into the endzone for 75 yards. UC Davis then converted on the two-point conversion, shrinking Sac State’s lead, 21-24. 

However, the Hornets held on to the win. The final score was 21-27, and the Aggies’ season came to an end in dramatic fashion in the final seconds of regulation. 

“I told our guys afterward I love them. I love them a lot,” Hawkins said after the game. “But most games and most seasons are made by a few plays that decide which side of the ledger you’ll end up on.”

UC Davis came to a touchdown away from winning the game and extending their season into the playoffs. Despite having the toughest schedule in program history, they managed to end the season with a winning record (6-5). They overcame a 1-4 start and proved that maybe this really was one of the best teams in program history. 


Written by: Marlon Rolon — sports@theaggie.org