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.