Higher stakes for Airey, Aggies

UC Davis has bigger football fish to fry than Cal Poly these days. Beating the Mustangs has become like shooting guppies in a barrel for the Aggies, who have won the past two meetings by an average of 33 points. The Aggies will seek to extend their hold on the Golden Horseshoe trophy to four years in Davis on Saturday.

Portland State led 7-0 at halftime at Weber State in 2016 and could not seal the deal in a 14-10 loss. UC Davis is quite familiar with that feeling. 

Connor Airey (Wayne Tilcock/Aggie Photo)

The inability to put away an opponent was a habit for UC Davis in 2019 when the Aggies went 5-7. UC Davis led in five of its losses. The most painful was squandering a 17-3 lead against Sacramento State in a 27-17 loss. With the victory, the Hornets shared the Big Sky Conference championship with  Weber State. 

And let’s not forget that UC Davis was taken to task in 2018 after sharing the title with Weber State and Eastern Washington. Some considered the Aggies unworthy because they did not play Weber State that season. Weber State drove that home in 2019 by knocking UC Davis out of the FCS Top 25 with a 36-20 victory.

That the 2020 season was postponed because of COVID-19 only gave senior linebacker Connor Airey and his teammates 15 months to stew over the disappointment of 2019. Defeating Big Sky opponents such as Cal Poly, Portland State and Southern Utah is not going to cut it for UC Davis anymore. The stakes are now higher.

“We had that one great season in 2018, but what does that mean if we can’t follow up?” Airey said.  “We weren’t able to close out games (in 2019). It left a mark on all of us. We’ve made it an emphasis to close out games. We want to establish ourselves as contenders again. If we put in the work, it will show on Saturday.”

It showed March 6 at Idaho in the first game of this makeshift spring season. The six games will not count against a player’s eligibility, so Airey and the other seniors can return in the fall. Airey said these six games are still vital for a team needing to right the ship before traveling to its 2021 opener at Tulsa on Sept. 2.

UC Davis erased a 10-0 deficit at Idaho and took the lead by scoring touchdowns on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter. Aimey finished off the Vandals with his first career interception on the first play after freshman Lan Larison’s 9-yard scoring run with 3:12 to play put the Aggies ahead by the final score of 27-17.

That interception along with 10 tackles and a sack led to Airey being named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week. The honor was the first for the Servite High School (Anaheim) graduate who walked on at UC Davis. He redshirted in 2016, contributed on special teams the next two seasons and became a starter in 2019.

There were times in 2016 when Airey questioned whether he was wasting time by going to practice when football was not paying his tuition or room and board. His major (Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior) is hardly the easiest. He wondered if he could continue to invest in football without reaping any dividends.

“There was definitely a point and time when I had to look at myself in the mirror and make sure that this was something I wanted. It was definitely humbling, definitely a hard experience,” said Airey, who is the Aggies’ leading tackler with 17 through two games. “I learned a lot from that experience and that’s why I’m here. It was definitely an experience that helped me be the player I am today.”

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