Aggies in rush to rebound

UC Davis offensive coordinator Tim Plough has one goal each week in devising his game plan. He wants sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam to carry or catch the ball 25 to 30 times. Plough would also like 15 to 20 touches for junior Tehran Thomas. If the two combine for 40 or more, it usually bodes well for the Aggies.

Gilliam and Thomas came close to 40 against top-ranked North Dakota State on Sept. 21. Gilliam had 19 rushing attempts and caught seven passes. Thomas had 11 carries and one reception. Their combined 38 touches and 173 total yards are a big reason why the Aggies gave the Bison a run for the money in a 27-16 loss.

North Dakota State had won its previous eight games by an average of 36 points, with the closest score being a 38-24 victory over Eastern Washington last January in the FCS national championship game. UC Davis earned enough respect to remain fourth in the FCS rankings instead of dropping with the loss.

The drop came this week. UC Davis fell to No. 12 after being humbled at home in a 45-20 loss to Montana, which replaced UC Davis in the top 10 after vaulting from No. 18 to No. 9. UC Davis had been in the top 10 since cracking it for the first time after rallying for a 44-37 victory over Idaho State last October.

This week also brings a long flight to Grand Forks for Saturday’s game at North Dakota, which lost 38-7 at North Dakota State on Sept. 7. By the time the Aggies come home, they will have flown 7,000 miles in three weeks to face two teams separated by 80 miles. At least they should be accustomed to jet lag by now.

A 25-point loss is not customary for UC Davis. Fingers can be pointed in several directions after the Aggies’ worst home defeat since a 34-6 loss to Southern Utah in 2015. Rankings meant nothing in those days with UC Davis finishing 2-9. They went 3-8 in 2016 and then 5-6 in 2017 in Dan Hawkins’ first season as head coach.

A 10-3 finish in 2018 raised the bar for the Aggies, who earned a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time. That makes last week’s loss much more difficult to swallow. Start with three turnovers, nine penalties, poor tackling and no sacks. UC Davis sacked Montana’s Dalton Sneed five times last October in overcoming an 18-point deficit for a 49-21 victory.

Gilliam and Thomas combined for 147 rushing yards and each scored a touchdown that day. Thomas scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 56-yard run with 10:59 to play. UC Davis got the ball back 69 seconds later when Sneed was sacked and lost a fumble at the Montana 14. Gilliam scored two plays later on a 4-yard run.

The Grizzlies were not as generous last Saturday. The Aggies did not have a rushing touchdown, extending their losing streak when they do not have one to six games. Gilliam and Thomas did not come close to Plough’s goal of combining for at least 40 touches. Gilliam had 18. Thomas finished with just eight. They combined to run for 75 yards, and Gilliam was held to a season-low 2.7 yards per carry. 

Learning more on Thomas would have made sense, but suggest that to Plough and he will explain that Thomas’ productivity is dependent on Gilliam. Thomas is 2 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Gilliam at 5-foot-11 and 215, but Plough said Thomas is more likely than Gilliam to score on any given play.

“We love when Ulonzo starts the drives because he has earned it. He’s going to get the ball more,” Plough said. “We look at Tehran in the middle of a drive when the defense is tired and maybe Ulonzo is a little tired. (Thomas is) as fresh as a daisy and they’re breathing really hard. We look at Tehran as more of a home-run type of back. If he gets in the open and gets to full speed, he’s going to go the distance.”

The longest run for Thomas in four games this season was 18 yards against Montana. He missed the Sept. 14 game against Lehigh with an injury. Plough figures it is a matter of time before Thomas busts loose. Saturday’s game at North Dakota would be as good a time as any. 

Montana manhandles UC Davis

Montana had a score to settle with UC Davis on Saturday, and the Grizzlies did just that in a 45-20 victory. Montana avenged a 49-21 loss to UC Davis in 2018 in which the Grizzlies squandered an 18-point halftime lead. Top: Carson Crawford lunges for the goal line to score the Aggies’ first touchdown and Tehran Thomas implores the crowd to cheer. Middle: Kris Vaughn celebrates with Lance Babb II after his second touchdown reception. Bottom: UC Davis safety Tiger Garcia lays the wood to Jerry Louie-McGee to separate the Montana receiver from the ball.

Aggies receiver comes armed

Carson Crawford is nearly adept at throwing the ball as he is at catching it.

Two field goals and a 15-point deficit were all UC Davis to show had after nearly 42 minutes of futility against Montana last Oct. 27. The Aggies had a little more than a quarter to mount a comeback if they were to beat the Grizzlies for the first time in eight meetings and improve to 5-0 in the Big Sky Conference.

The defense did its part after Max O’Rourke’s 41-yard field goal by stopping Montana on fourth-and-1 at the UC Davis 34-yard line. Carson Crawford, a redshirt freshman at the time, could sense a shift in momentum. Before the offense took the field, the wide receiver learned the first play would be his.

Offensive coordinator Tim Plough called a play in which Crawford takes the ball from quarterback Jake Maier and becomes the passer. His 40-yard toss found tight end Wes Preece, who then rumbled 16 yards for a first down at the Montana 10. The Aggies scored their first touchdown two plays later.

“Forty yards is not that hard for me, especially when the guy is pretty wide open,” said Crawford, who threw for 3,010 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior at Beaverton (Ore.) High School in 2016 after switching from receiver to quarterback. “It’s nice that the coaches have trust in me for me not to do something stupid.”

The Aggies liked reaching the end zone so much that they kept going back, doing so five times in the fourth quarter to win 49-21. Crawford capped the onslaught by catching a 5-yard touchdown pass for Maier with 5:08 to play.

Montana will have a score to settle Saturday at 1 p.m. in Davis. The Grizzlies will surely be mindful of Crawford’s arm after being burned last season. They may also want to watch out for his hands because Crawford is not only deployed for what Plough calls “exotic plays.” The sophomore has become a reliable receiver and shares the team lead with 24 catches.

Crawford needs just two more to surpass his 2018 total of 25, not that he is counting. He was content contributing on “exotic plays” in 2018 and would be so again this season if that was his role. Plough appears to have more in store for Crawford now that Keelan Doss has left UC Davis for the NFL.

“That was my role last year because we had Keelan out there,” Crawford said of Doss, who graduated with 321 receptions for 4,069 yards and 28 touchdowns. “I was nowhere near Keelan then and I’m still nowhere near Keelan. As long as we’re winning, I’m pretty much OK with anything.”

The same goes for Crawford with jersey numbers. He has no idea how he got No. 86 last year and would have been happy with it again this season had his father Chris not said otherwise. Chris wore No. 6 during his glory days as a quarterback at Portland State and ordered his son to take it when UC Davis receivers Cody Hawkins offered it to Crawford last January.

“I didn’t need a new number,” Crawford recalled. “I didn’t do enough last year where I would think I should get a new number.”

Crawford lost his father to leukemia just weeks after accepting No. 6. He has since added the Roman numeral for six to the tattoo on the inside of his left wrist. His father had the same tattoo with his favorite saying, “Press on.”

And to think Crawford almost passed on taking it. “I’m glad I did, that’s for sure,” he said. “It reminds me of him every day.”

Four of a kind will win in Reno


A quarterback from Will C. Wood High School, a kicker from Vacaville High, a running back from Vanden and a cheerleader from Dixon – Reno is known for buffets, but this four-course meal Sept. 14 would have been enough to satisfy the appetite of anyone who roots for any or all of the four schools.

Better blockers than barbers

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Kooper Richardson, left, and Jake Parks wet their whistles in a recent practice.

Colton Lamson cannot wait to have his hair styled into a mullet, but the UC Davis offensive tackle claims a visit to a salon or barber shop is beyond his budget. Who knew the crafting of a short-in-the-front, long-in-the-back mullet would require professional services instead of clippers and a bathroom mirror?

The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Lamson can open holes for running backs and protect quarterback Jake Maier, but cutting his own hair might be a bit much to ask of a sociology major with an emphasis in law and society. The junior needs a mullet if for no other reason than to honor his deal with Kooper Richardson.

Lamson and Richardson must have had too much free time on their hands in May 2018 when they made a pledge to “just be fun with our hair,” the 6-6, 298-pound Richardson recalled. “I was a little skeptical at first, but then we committed to it. My girlfriend hates it, but I love it. That’s all that matters.”

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Will Martin

Their objective was not shock value or to just make their teammates laugh. There was actually a method to the mullet madness. “We thought what would be better to exemplify offensive line play and tackles,” Lamson explained. “It’s a mullet. What’s more dirty and nastier than that? That’s how we want to play.”

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Colton Lamson

No one can argue with the results. The two tackles combined with senior Ramsey Hufford, redshirt freshman Connor Pettek and true freshman Jake Parks in 2018 to pave the way for the Aggies to capture a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and advance to the FCS playoffs for the first time.

UC Davis shared the title with Eastern Washington and Weber State. Eastern Washington had all five of its offensive linemen honored in the all-conference voting with three on the second team and two on the third. Weber State had two on the first team and one earn honorable mention. UC Davis had none.

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Connor Pettek

The only recognition that Richardson, Lamson, Pettek, Smith and Parks usually receive is when a student runs into one of them on campus and asks if he plays football – not that the person doing the recognizing knows his name or his position. “No one comes to a game,” Pettek offered, “to see the offensive line play.”

Parks started all 13 games last season. Pettek became a starter in Week 2 after senior Will Martin was injured in the season-opening victory at San Jose State. Martin has returned this season after receiving a medical hardship waiver. “It’s kind of like coming back home,” Martin said. “It’s family. It’s comfortable.”

Martin and Parks have resisted the temptation to join the mullet movement. Pettek tried to join, but he has been left looking like Brian Setzer of rockabilly fame if Setzer joined the cast of “Duck Dynasty.” UC Davis does not have a hair policy for athletes, Pettek said, so “it’s kind of like go for it. If you think it’s either funny or looks good, go for it. I was trying to get a little mullet going, but they messed it up.”

The linemen might have been pulling their hair out this week had the Aggies not rallied for a 38-35 victory at San Diego last Saturday. UC Davis bolted to a 14-0 lead, but San Diego fought back and took its first lead at 35-31 with 8:47 to play. The Aggies responded with an 81-yard drive in 14 plays to win it. Gilliam rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry to the delight of the offensive line. Senior quarterback Jake Maier was sacked just once in passing for 359 yards and two scores.

 “When we get clicking in a game and moving as a unit, it’s a force,” Lamson said. “We want to let Jake do his thing and we know he’s going to shred people if we give him time, but we want to run the rock.”

The Aggies hope to rock in their home opener against Lehigh at 7 p.m. Saturday.

His time has arrived at Nevada

Carson Strong cried after every Will C. Wood High School football game in 2017. His tears were born of frustration more than sorrow. After the five victories, Strong did not feel as if he deserved to celebrate with his teammates. After the five losses, he could only wonder if he could have changed the outcome in any of those games.

A knee injury and the subsequent surgery reduced Strong to a sideline spectator as a senior. The quarterback was denied an encore after passing for 2,732 yards and 26 touchdowns with just four interceptions in 2016. His only comfort was those numbers leading the University of Nevada to offer him a scholarship.

Carson Strong

Strong was also robbed of a last hurrah in basketball at Wood because his right knee refused to cooperate. To this day, Strong likes to think he could have stopped Vacaville’s Zach Perlstein from sinking two last-second shots to give the Bulldogs a sweep of the Wildcats. No one needs to remind Strong that Vacaville ended Wood’s two-year reign as the Monticello Empire League champion by going 10-0 in 2018.

“It was a dark time for me. It was definitely tough,” Strong said. “I didn’t feel like I was a part of it.”

At least Strong was spared the agony of witnessing those two defeats. He was attending classes at Nevada  after leaving Wood, his family and friends at the winter break to get a head start on his college career. There is little chance he would be where he is today if he had stayed at Wood for all the senior frolic.

Behind center is where Strong will be Friday night when he becomes the first freshman to start at quarterback for Nevada in a season opener since 1998. Strong is a redshirt freshman after playing in one game last year. Purdue will be a far tougher test for Strong on Friday than Portland State was last season.

Sacrificing the second half of his senior year now seems as if it was not a sacrifice at all. And with three semesters and two summer sessions under his academic belt, he plans to earn his business degree with two years of athletic eligibility remaining. That will give him ample time on scholarship for a master’s.

From the day he left Wood, Strong realized his world would be much more demanding. He had to get serious. “I was going to 5 a.m. workouts instead of having a cakewalk senior year,” he said. “I missed all the fun stuff (at Wood), but I know what’s best for me. It was the right decision to come here early.”

Practices and scrimmages have prepared Strong for his leading role, but he knows better than to kid himself. He has not thrown a pass or taken a hit in a game since a 38-15 loss to Vacaville in the 2016 Black and Blue Bowl. He has not taken a snap in a game with his right knee in the brace he now has to wear.

None of that can shake Strong’s confidence, however. All those long days of rehabilitating his knee and dragging tackling dummies to the practice field in the chill of a Reno night to use them as targets to improve his accuracy are in the past. The future is knocking and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strong is at the door.

“When I get hit for the first time and get up, it’ll be like ‘I’m good. I’m rocking.’ That will knock the butterflies away,” he said. “I couldn’t be better physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m right where I want to be. I’m ready for this.”

Aggies want King to have a ball

Devon King thought he had scored against Stanford after receovering what he believed to be a latera, but the play was eventually ruled a forward pass.

UC Davis has lost its past five games against Pacific 12 Conference opponents by an average of 34 points.The closest was a 30-10 loss at Stanford in 2018, and that game could have been much closer. The Aggies led 3-0 for nearly seven minutes, and it could have been 10-0 by the time Stanford got on the scoreboard.

Stanford quarter back K.J. Costello had already thrown one interception when UC Davis linebacker Mason Moe pressured him into a wobbly pass midway through the first quarter. Freshman cornerback Devon King alertly scooped the ball on a bounce behind the line of scrimmage and dashed 18 yards to the end zone.

King was immediately mobbed by his teammates, but the celebration did not last long. The referees huddled and ruled Costello’s arm was going forward when the ball left his right hand. That turned what King thought was a lateral into an incomplete pass. The Aggies have been wondering “what if” for nearly a year.. 

“I always think about it,” said King, who was not only referring to his touchdown return being erased. He also bemoaned the opportunity UC Davis squandered to join FCS teams that have upset ranked FBS squads (Stanford was ranked ninth at the time). UC Davis opens Saturday at Cal, but the Bears are not ranked.

FBS schools pay FCS opponents thousands of dollars to supposedly be easy prey. FCS teams take the money and treat the game as a measuring stick against a supposedly superior opponent. King is not buying that. He believes with every braid in his long hair that the Aggies can beat any team on any given Saturday.

“We’re not just going to show up,” King replied when asked how the Aggies can benefit from facing FBS teams. “Our coaches have told us we can win every game we play, so we’re going to play every game to win.”

The 2019 edition of the Aggies is far different from the teams that lost by 52-3 to Cal in 2010, 48-14 to Arizona State in 2011, 45-0 to Stanford and 53-28 to Oregon in 2016. UC Davis is coming off a 10-3 season in which it shared the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time.

Although it did not count, King’s fumble return against Stanford revealed his ball-hawking ability. His quick thinking was honed in practice by defensive backs coach Cha’pelle Brown, who was a three-year starter in the secondary for UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins when Hawkins was running the show at Colorado.

“Our coach always preaches to us that whenever we see the ball on the ground, pick it up and run with it,” King explained. “It’s something we work on every day in practice – scoop and score. When it happened in the game, it was like repetition.”

King struck again last Oct. 27 at Montana with two fourth-quarter interceptions to seal the Aggies’ comeback from an 18-point deficit for a 49-21 victory. Two weeks later at Eastern Washington, King stripped the ball from wide receiver Terence Grady at the UC Davis 17-yard-line to prevent the Eagles from scoring.

Isaiah Thomas was bailed out by King against Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic a week later. Thomas fumbled on a punt return, and the ball bounced backward to the UC Davis 24-yard line. King somehow navigated through four Sacramento State players to locate the ball and pounce on it. Instead of a turnover, UC Davis took possession and drove 76 yards for a touchdown to lead 35-10 at halftime.

“It’s just awareness and always trying to be around the ball,” King said. “Whenever you run to the ball, good things happen.”

Ex-Wildcat runs with Aggies

Daniel McFadden did not expect any favors last summer when he arrived at UC Davis. The 2018 Will C. Wood High School graduate was nothing more than a walk-on with the football team. The running back was about as low as he could go without having to put away equipment and sweep the locker room after practice.

Then again, McFadden asked for it. Several smaller colleges were interested in his services after he rushed for 1,086 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior in 2017. McFadden may have even received a scholarship. UC Davis had nothing more to offer than an opportunity to try out if he could qualify for admission.

His 4.1 GPA at Wood saw to that. Any chance of playing was out of the question, however. Even dressing for home games would have been asking too much. He was a walk-on and a redshirt. He was nobody.

As McFadden labored in the shadows, sophomore Tehran Thomas and redshirt freshman Alonzo Gilliam dashed into the spotlight in 2018 by combining to rush for 1,662 yards and 19 touchdowns. McFadden did not need a depth chart to figure out where he stood on game days. He knew that would be on the sideline in street clothes.

“It’s humbles you for sure,” McFadden said after practice Aug. 17. “You just have to put your head down and keep working hard. You can’t control when you’ll get (in a game), but you can control how hard you work.”

A demanding academic workload pushed McFadden to his limits as a freshman. “I took my first math class andI  barely passed with a C-minus. After that, I had to buckle down,” said McFadden, who could have hardly been blamed if he began to contemplate whether football was worth all the time and effort.

McFadden chuckled when asked if he would been missed last season had he skipped a practice or two. That was when he revealed why he could have never done that. Thomas would have noticed if the walk-on was absent.

Thomas made a habit of having McFadden stay after practice for extra work to expedite the former Wildcat’s learning curve. Thomas took interest in a freshman who would have nothing to do with the Aggies finishing 10-3, earning a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and making their first appearance in the FCS playoffs.

Daniel McFadden

McFadden appreciates the favor now as much as he did a year ago. He learned what it means to be a teammate. He learned a team is only as strong as the weakest player on the roster. He learned what is expected.

“That showed that the culture here is different,” McFadden said. “(Thomas and Gilliam) are such good role models. They work so hard. If that’s what I get to shadow and work up toward, that’s just going to make me better.”

Most importantly, McFadden learned he belonged. “I’m part of it now,” he said.

Last year was not the first time McFadden felt like a stranger in football. He came to Wood from Vacaville Christian High as a junior and was informed by then-Wildcats coach Carlos Meraz that any playing time he received would have to be earned. McFadden responded to Meraz’s challenge by running  for 923 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016.

“He didn’t flinch,” Meraz recalled. “That’s exactly the kind of kid he is. We went from splitting reps to being the guy.”

McFadden is one of four Wood graduates who will play at Division I universities in 2019. Two are wide receivers – Arthur Jackson is a senior at Eastern Michigan and Tayvian Cunningham a junior at Arizona. Quarterback Carson Strong is a redshirt freshman at Nevada and will start against Purdue on Aug. 30.

“I definitely have pride,” McFadden said of the foursome. “I was only there for two years, but those two years were amazing.”