UC Davis football fans must surely remember Ethan Hicks. Who can forget his two carries for 28 yards and a touchdown in the Aggies’ 56-13 victory over Sacramento State in the 2018 Causeway Classic? The game was shifted from UC Davis to the University of Nevada because of smoky skies, but the Aggies still managed to feel right at home.
Hicks’ performance was a total surprise since the senior had more tackles (20) on special teams than rushing attempts (five) in four seasons. Hicks was for once a contributor on offense. Head coach Dan Hawkins prefers to think of all of his players as contributors instead of designating those who are starters and those who do not play much.
The 43-point victory was the Aggies’ largest against the Hornets since 1982, when UC Davis won 51-6 on its way to finishing 12-1. Hawkins played fullback and Ken O’Brien starred at quarterback as UC Davis won the Northern California Athletic Conference championship for the 12th consecutive year. The Aggies were unbeaten until losing to Southwest Texas State in the Division II championship game.
That was then. Hawkins has not been as fortunate since 2018 against Sacramento State. The Hornets have turned the tide against the Aggies and the entire Big Sky Conference since Troy Taylor became Sacramento State’s head coach. The Hornets shared the Big Sky title with Weber State in 2019 and won it outright last season by going 8-0.
Sacramento State has not lost a Big Sky game on the road with Taylor at the helm. The last conference loss away from Hornet Stadium was in 2018 against UC Davis in Reno. That was the last game for Hornets coach Jody Sears after going 20-35 in five years. Sacramento State lured Taylor away from Utah by offering him a seven-year contract
The Hornets beat the Aggies 27-17 in 2019 by shutting out UC Davis in the second half. Sacramento State won 27-7 last season by holding UC Davis scoreless in the first three quarters. The Aggies would have hosted the Hornets in 2020, but COVID-19 led to the season being reduced to five spring games in 2021. Sacramento State opted to sit out.
Taylor is an offensive wizard, but defense was the difference for Sacramento State in those two victories. UC Davis managed just 61 rushing yards in 2019 and 73 last Nov. 20. Ulonzo Gilliam is the Aggies’ all-time leading rusher and gained 138 yards against the Hornets in 2018. Gilliam had more yards receiving (62) than rushing (61) against Sacramento State in 2019. The same was true last year as Gilliam was held to 17 yards on eight carries and caught eight passes for 58.
Gilliam has 43 rushing touchdowns in his career, but he has not reached the end zone in three games against the Hornets. He had three touchdown runs Saturday in the Aggies’ 46-26 victory at Idaho, setting career highs for carries (30) and rushing yards (164). Gilliam is the Big Sky’s second-leading rusher in 2022 with 1,132 yards.
Sacramento State’s Cameron Skattebo is the leader with 1,154 yards on 33 fewer carries than Gilliam. Skattebo played in his first Causeway Classic as a true freshman last November and rushed for 69 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown dash. The two talented backs will meet again Saturday when Sacramento State (10-0, 7-0 Big Sky) hosts UC Davis (6-4, 5-2) in what could be Gilliam’s swan song with the Aggies.
UC Davis has to win to have any shot at being among the 24 teams in the FCS playoffs. The field will be announced on Nov. 20. As many as five Big Sky teams – Sacramento State, Montana State, Weber State, Idaho and Montana – could make it since all five are ranked in the latest FCS Coaches Poll. UC Davis made it six this week when it broke into the poll at No. 24.
The Aggies will need much more than 17 yards on the ground from Gilliam to stand any chance.