UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins had much more on his mind Tuesday than trying to find out how many of his Aggies were selected to the All-Big Sky Conference team. The Aggies are taking a crash course on South Dakota State in preparation for facing the Jackrabbits in the first round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday in Brookings, S.D. Even after Hawkins learned 12 players were honored, he did not jump out of his seat at his weekly press conference and celebrate.
“For every head coach who goes through the all-conference selection committee, it’s unbelievable,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of bartering that goes on and a lot of arguing. Life’s not fair, football’s not fair and in many cases all-conference teams are not fair. I’ve been doing this a long time and all-conference teams are always a head-scratcher. And they’ll probably continue to be.”
Three UC Davis players were named to the first team – guard Jake Parks, cornerback Brandon Perryman and running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. Big Sky champion Sacramento State had six first-team selections – wide receiver Pierre Williams, tight end Marshel Martin, center Thomas Parker, defensive end Josiah Erickson, kicker Kyle Sentkowski and all-purpose player Asher O’Hara.
Five Sacramento State players were second-team selections – offensive tackle Kooper Richardson, guard Brandon Weldon, outside linebacker Marte Mapu, inside linebacker Marcus Hawkins and cornerback Munchie Filer III. Richardson played three seasons at UC Davis and came to Sacramento State as a graduate transfer to play for his father Kris and with his brother Kaden.
UC Davis swept the second-team selections picks for special teams with punter Dan Whelan, kicker Isaiah Gomez, kick returner Lan Larison, punt returner Isaiah Thomas and all-purpose player Trent Tompkins,. Other second-team picks for the Aggies were tight end McCallan Castles, center Connor Pettek, defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers and safety Jaylin White. Sacramento State had five third-team selections – quarterback Jake Dunniway, running back Cameron Skattebo, cornerback Malik Jeter and punter Sam Clark. Defensive tackle Jett Stanley was honorable mention.
The Hornets are the No. 4 seed in the FCS playoffs and await the winner of the UC Davis-South Dakota State game in the second round on Dec. 4 at Hornet Stadium. UC Davis would welcome another shot at Sacramento State after the Hornets rolled to a 27-7 rout in the 67th annual Causeway Classic. Sacramento State has won the past two Causeway clashes and would likely be riding a three-game winning streak against UC Davis had the Hornets played last spring.
Much more than bragging rights will be at stake Saturday when UC Davis hosts Sacramento State in the 67th edition of the Causeway Classic. This will be the third consecutive meeting of the rivals with a piece of the Big Sky Conference championship on the line. The Aggies shared the title in 2018, the Hornets did the same two years ago and Sacramento State can claim the crown outright Saturday with a victory and a Montana State loss to Montana.
Montana State kicks off two hours before the Causeway Classic beings at 1 p.m., so the Hornets should know by halftime if they have a chance to have the title all to themselves. The Causeway Classic is hardly a road game for the visiting team, but Sacramento State has not lost a Big Sky game away from Hornet Stadium since Troy Taylor signed a seven-year contract to become the Hornets coach in 2019. The Hornets are 7-0 on the Big Sky road with one of their victories just so happening to come at Montana State in 2019
Sacramento State is riding a seven-game winning streak, its longest in 55 years, with all of those victories coming against Big Sky opponents. The Hornets dropped two of their three nonconference games, including a 42-30 loss at Cal on Sept. 18. Sacramento State also lost to Northern Iowa, which at the time was ranked 15th in the FCS Top 25. The Panthers fell out of the rankings this week but could be one of 13 teams to receive at-large berths to the FCS playoffs. The 24-team bracket will be announced at 9:30 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
UC Davis (5-2 Big Sky, 8-2 overall) fell four spots to No. 10 in the rankings after losing 38-20 to Eastern Washington last Saturday. A Top 10 spot should be enough to get the Aggies an at-large berth into the playoffs regardles of Saturday’s outcome. Sacramento State (7-0, 8-2) is No. 11 and will be the Big Sky’s automatic qualifier with a victory and a Montana State loss. If both the Hornets and Bobcats lose, Sacramento State will receive the automatic bid by virtue of its 28-21 victory Oct. 16 at Montana, which at the time was ranked No. 5. The Grizzlies are currently No. 7, two spots below Eastern Washington.
The Big Sky should have five teams in the playoffs and there is a good chance two of them will meet at some point. That happened in 2019 with Weber State defeating Montana in the quarterfinals. Sacramento State was seeded fourth two years ago, drew a first-round bye and then lost to Austin Peay. UC Davis and Eastern Washington met in the second round in 2018, four weeks after the Aggies lost 59-20 to the Eagles on Nov. 10 in Cheney. UC Davis returned to Cheney for the playoff rematch and lost 34-29 when Eastern Washington’s Sam McPherson scored on a 35-yard run with 26 seconds to play.
Eastern Washington has continued to have its way with UC Davis. Last Saturday’s victory was the Eagles’ 10th in as many meetings with the Aggies. Quarterback Eric Barriere has personally seen to maintaining the Eagles’ superiority. In four games against UC Davis, Barriere has thrown for 1,324 yards and 10 touchdowns. The redshirt senior was at it again last Saturday in Davis by throwing for 411 yards and three touchdowns without being sacked. That was a standard performance for Barriere, who passed for 600 yards and seven touchdowns in the Eagles’ 71-21 victory over Idaho on Oct. 16.
UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins tipped his figurative cap to Barriere last Saturday. “He’s a generational talent. He could play at any level and play well,” Hawkins said. “As I told our team and him, I have had the fortune or misfortune of playing against a number of Heisman Trophy winners and (Heisman) finalists. (Barriere is) as dominant a player as anyone I’ve played against. You’re not going to shut him down. You just try to limit what he can do.”
Wrestling with Sacramento State’s tag team of quarterbacks should prove much easier for UC Davis than trying to take down Barriere. Taylor plays to the respective strengths of Jake Dunniway (2,051 yards passing and 11 touchdowns) and Asher O’Hara (a team-high 593 yards rushing and eight touchdowns).
Hawkins has done the same at UC Davis with redshirt freshmen Miles Hastings (920 yards passing and six touchdowns) and Trent Tompkins (420 yards rushing and six touchdowns) taking turns. Hunter Rodrigues started the first four games this season after starting all five games last spring. The junior has not been the same since sustaining a concussion at Weber State on Sept. 25. He missed the Idaho game and was benched after tossing two interceptions in the first half of a 27-17 loss at Idaho State on Oct. 9.
Two more interceptions against Northern Colorado on Oct. 16 convinced Hawkins to go with Hastings, who has started the past three games. Hawkins has not lost faith in Rodrigues even thought Rodrigues has lost the starting job. “I think for a variety of reasons he was pressing,” Hawkins said. “I felt bad because it had to be hard for him. But as my dad told me a long time ago, life is not fair and either is football. Humility before honor – I get it.”
Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor had no idea how quarterback Jake Dunniway would react when Asher O’Hara joined the Hornets. Dunniway had the inside track to be the starter after backing up Kevin Thomson in 2019. When an injury forced Thomson to miss one game two years ago, Dunniway passed for 384 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-34 victory at Northern Arizona.
Dunniway rallied the Hornets by tossing two touchdown passes in the final two minutes and kept Sacramento State in contention for the Big Sky Conference championship. The Hornets earned a share of the title in Taylor’s first season at the helm by defeating UC Davis 27-17 in the 66th Causeway Classic.
The scenario will be the same for Taylor’s team on Saturday at UC Davis. Sacramento State is tied with Montana State atop the Big Sky at 7-0, so a victory would guarantee the Hornets at least a co-championship. It will be the third consecutive Causeway clash in which a piece of the Big Sky title will be at stake.
UC Davis earned a third of the title by routing Sacramento State 56-13 in the 2018 Causeway Classic when the game was moved from Davis to the University of Nevada because of poor air quality caused by the Camp Fire. The Aggies finished 7-1 in the Big Sky to share the championship with Weber State and Eastern Washington.
Taylor believes the Hornets have a shot to win their second title in as many seasons (they chose not to play after the 2020 season was moved to last spring) because Dunniway and O’Hara have put aside their egos for the greater good.
“I remember when I called (Dunniway) and told him there’s a guy coming in,” Taylor said. “He said, ‘Coach, I get it. We’re trying to get better as a team.’ He’s been so solid the entire time. In this age when for a lot of people and players it’s all about you, (Dunniway and O’Hara) are not like that at all. And honestly if those two guys weren’t like that, I don’t know if we would be having the success we’re having. You can divide a team with two quarterbacks.”
O’Hara transferred to Sacramento State after the Ilinois native started for two years at Middle Tennessee State. Dunniway joined the Hornets in 2019 after playing at San Diego Mesa College in 2018. He walked on at UC Davis in 2017 after graduating from St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, but the Aggies were not in need of a quarterback with sophomore Jake Maier as the starter.
Dunniway never assumed he would start after Thomson packed his bags and moved to Washington in 2020 as a graduate transfer. An injury prevented Thomson, the 2019 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, from playing for the Huskies. He is now on the BC Lions practice squad in the Canadian Football League.
“Ever since (Thomson) left, I’ve always been in the mindset that they weren’t going to just hand me the job,” Dunniway explained. “I wanted to earn it. I just embraced the competition. I wasn’t going to run away from the challenge.”
Running is O’Hara’s forte. He has rushed for a team-high 593 yards and eight touchdowns. The 6-foot, 195-pound junior is fearless and often attempts to leap over defenders because he figures he has no chance of running them over. O’Hara had his first 100-yard game last Saturday, gaining 102 yards on just 13 carries and scoring on a 9-yard run in a 49-20 victory over Portland State.
Dunniway did his part by throwing for 281 yards and a touchdown. “After seeing what (O’Hara) could do in camp and I thought I was playing well,” Dunniway said, “I kind of agreed with the coaches that would be a good idea to play both of us.”
Tayvian Cunningham might have lost his helmet Oct. 30, but the Arizona wide receiver did not get lost on his way to the end zone against USC. The Will C. Wood High School graduate had a 73-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter and would have had a 72-yarder in the second quarter if not for his helmet.
USC cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart was on the verge of being torched by Cunningham after Cunningham caught a pass from Jamarye Joiner. Taylor-Stuart reached out in a last-ditch effort to corral Cunningham and hooked his fingers into Cunningham’s facemask. The helmet twisted off like the cap on a bottle of ketchup.
Cunningham did not break stride as his helmet was removed and continued on his way to the end zone. The facemask penalty wiped out his touchdown, however, and left the Wildcats with a first down at USC’s 22-yard line. Cunningham had to settle for a 35-yard catch. Arizona scored three plays later on Michael Wiley’s 1-yard run to cut USC’s lead to 28-14.
“(Taylor-Stuart) actually took it off pretty smoothly, just like I would take it off,” said Cunningham, who did not realize the play ended as soon as his helmet was removed. Twisting off Cunningham’s helmet would have not been so easy for Taylor-Stuart had Cunningham’s hair been styled in a high top fade as it was during his days at Will C. Wood. The senior now prefers long braids.
USC was Cunningham’s favorite team when he was a youngster learning to put his speed to good use on a football field. He now likes the Trojans for a far different reason. He has had his top two performances with the Wildcats against USC.
Cunningham caught five passes for 110 yards with a 75-yard touchdown in Arizona’s 34-30 loss to USC on Nov. 14, 2020. His 73-yard touchdown on Oct. 30 made Cunningham one of just three Arizona players to have two touchdown receptions of 70 or more yards in their careers. The other two were Junor Criner (2008-11) and Cayleb Jones (2014-15). And Cunningham could have three.
Arizona only plays USC once a season, however. There have been several games since Cunningham joined the Wildcats in 2019 that he has played with nothing to show for his efforts. He did not have a reception Saturday as Arizona snapped a 20-game losing streak with a 10-3 victory over Cal in Tucson. That was the third game this season in which he was shut out. Cunningham caught 14 passes in the first four games and just four in the past five games.
Regardless of how many passes he catches, Cunningham has made his mark at Arizona by proving a 5-foot-10, 183-pound junior college transfer from Sacramento City can hold his own against Division I players in the Pac-12 Conference. He never had the luxury of taking football for granted. He earned his way.
“I’m just embracing the whole ending of my college career,” he said. “I always believed I would be able to get here at some point. I’m just glad I was able to do it.”
What the future holds for Cunningham has yet to be determined. All he knows is nothing will ever stand in his way. “Every experience has taught me something new,” he said. “You have to give it all you got whatever the task is at hand.”
Flipping a coin to decide who should play quarterback would not do UC Davis much good. A coin has only two sides and three players have taken snaps for the Aggies this season. Such depth is usually considered to be a luxury, but at UC Davis it could mean none of the three has separated from the pack.
Hunter Rodrigues has started six games for the 6-1 Aggies, but throwing four interceptions in the past two games has to have coach Dan Hawkins wondering whether he can stick with the junior. Rodrigues has not been the same since sustaining a concussion in a 17-14 victory at Weber State on Sept. 25.
For example, take the first series last Saturday against Northern Colorado. Rodrigues completed his first two passes for 8 yards and was replaced by Trent Tompkins on fourth-and-1 at the Northern Colorado 49. Tompkins ran for 4 yards to give the Aggies a first down at the 45. That was as far as they would go.
Rodrigues wasted no time in seeing to that by bouncing a pass to Carson Crawford on first down and throwing behind C.J. Hutton on second down after scrambling out of the pocket. That was nothing compared with what Rodrigues did – or attempted to do – on third down.
Northern Colorado unleashed cornerback Uryan Hudson on a blitz and he forced Rodrigues to flee – and retreat toward Woodland. When Rodrigues was caught 19 yards later at the UC Davis 36, he chucked the ball into the air with enough hang time for the play to be easily mistaken for a punt. Northern Colorado’s Jace Bobo could have signaled for a fair catch when he intercepted Rodrigues’ ill-advised and desperate throw at the original line of scrimmage.
UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins does not tolerate turnovers. Rodrigues was pulled after throwing two interceptions in the first half at Idaho State on Oct. 9. The second came after Idaho State’s Benjami Omayebu fumbled on a punt return and Chris Venable recovered for UC Davis at the Idaho State 21. The Aggies trailed the Bengals 14-0 at the time. And Idaho State was 0-4 at the time.
Not only was Rodrigues picked off, but Idaho State’s Jayden Dawson added insult to injury by returning the interception 61 yards to the UC Davis 24. David Allish’s 23-yard field goal extended Idaho State’s lead to 17-0 and prompted Hawkins to replace Rodrigues with Tompkins in the second quarter.
That was Rodrigues’ first game since his concussion. He missed the 27-20 victory over Idaho on Oct. 2. Getting the hook against Idaho State led to speculation that he was not right in the head. Hawkins had his fair share of doubts.
Hawkins admitted to wondering, “Is (Rodrigues) fully ready to go, is he doing OK, is he seeing things OK, is he pressing, is his anxiety level up a little bit, is he trying to prove something?” There were no doubts about Rodrigues after he completed 69 percent (50-of-72) of his passes for 633 yards and five touchdowns in the first two games. He has thrown for 558 yards and two touchdowns since then, completing 51 percent (48-of-93) of his passes.
Tompkins can run like nobody’s business and leads the Aggies with five rushing touchdowns, but the redshirt freshman will never make a living by throwing the ball. In his first series against Idaho State, Tompkins carried the ball five times for 31 yards during a nine-play, 59-yard drive that Isaiah Gomez capped with a 33-yard field goal. Tompkins’ second series did not go nearly as well.
UC Davis got the ball back with 5:13 to play in the first half. Tompkins completed his first pass for 10 yards to Jared Harrell. His second would have been worth 26 yards and a first down at the Idaho State 10, but the completion to Hutton was wiped out by a holding penalty. The series ended with Tompkins misfiring on three consecutive passes, the last on fourth-and-17 at the Idaho State 43.
Hawkins’ gamble backfired when the Bengals needed just six plays and 61 seconds to go 57 yards for their third touchdown. Hawkins turned to redshirt freshman Miles Hastings in the third quarter with the Aggies having to throw in hopes of mounting a comeback. Hastings completed three of his first five passes for 24 yards, but his one and only series ended on second-and-9 at the Idaho State 16 when his pass to the end zone was intercepted.
Hastings came to the rescue for the Aggies against Weber State after Rodrigues was knocked out. Hastings was 7-of-8 for 50 yards as UC Davis drove 59 yards in 13 plays for the go-ahead touchdown, which Tompkins scored on a 1-yard run with 4:39 to play. That performance has somehow been forgotten since Hastings threw the interception at Idaho State. He has not played in the past two games.
“When you lose the turnover battle, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to lose the football game,” Hawkins said at a press conference three days after the loss to Idaho State. “Not only did we turn the ball over, but we turned the ball over in the red area. We gave them the ball when we had potential points on the board.”
Hawkins learned that lesson when he played fullback for the Aggies in 1981 and ’82. “If I fumbled one time, I wasn’t going to play,” he recalled. “That was the kind of standard. I don’t think I ever did. I don’t think I ever dropped the ball.”
UC Davis dropped the ball by losing at Idaho State. The cost remains to be determined. The Aggies will host Eastern Washington (4-0 in the Big Sky Conference) on Nov. 13 and Sacramento State (3-0) a week later. That will be the first time this season that UC Davis will have consecutive home games.
“I actually found this out. It’s illegal to play two home games in a row,” Hawkins quipped. “It’s an NCAA violation. It’s an unfair advantage I heard.”
Completing fewer than 20 passes in a game usually means trouble for UC Davis. Scoring fewer than 20 points in a game often spells defeat for the Aggies. Entering this season, UC Davis had not won a game in which it failed to score 20 points since a 12-8 victory at South Dakota State in 2012. That would be a losing streak of nine years and 26 games if you are into such minutia.
The Aggies also entered this season with a record of 14-30 since 2011 in games in which they did not complete 20 passes. Coach Dan Hawkins is probably not aware of that and probably could not care less. The former UC Davis fullback will stake his record on the strategy of running paves the path to winning.
UC Davis is 4-0 this season with more rushing plays (163) than passing attempts (142). The Aggies went 3-2 in the spring with the offense again preferring to keep the ball on the ground (232 rushing attempts) than letting it fly (142 passes).
That was hardly the case in 2018 when UC Davis finished 10-3 and shared the Big Sky Conference championship. Jake Maier threw 557 passes and completed 364 for 3,931 yards on his way to being named the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. The Aggies ran their way to 2,159 yards on 447 carries.
Maier had just one game that season in which he failed to complete 20 passes. It had no impact on the outcome at Cal Poly as five of Maier’s 17 completions accounted for touchdowns in the Aggies’ 52-10 victory. That was one of three games in 2018 and the only victory in which Maier did not pass for at least 230 yards.
That was then and this is now. The Aggies have already won two games this season in which they did not complete 20 passes. That is as many times as they have won without scoring 20 points. They pulled out a 19-17 victory at Tulsa on Sept. 2 with the offense scoring just one touchdown. Isaiah Gomez kicked two of his four field goals in the fourth quarter to put UC Davis ahead.
And there was last Saturday’s 17-14 thrilling victory at Weber State with Hunter Rodrigues and Miles Hastings combining to complete 18 passes. Hastings came to the rescue after Rodrigues got rocked on a 5-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
Hastings misfired on two of his first three passes and then completed six in a row. The Aggies had converted just three of 14 third downs when Hastings completed an 11-yard pass to Ulonzo Gilliam on third-and-6 at the Wildcats’ 42. Hastings sustained the drive on fourth-and-6 at the Weber State 27 with a 9-yard strike to Carson Crawford. The Aggies then called a timeout with 2:42 to play.
Two more completions gave UC Davis a first-and-goal at the Weber State 7. After Hastings was sacked for a 5-yard loss, he lofted a pass to C.J. Hutton in the end zone with Weber State’s Eddie Heckard bumping Hutton to the point that Hutton fell as the pass sailed well out of the end zone. Heckard was called for pass interference and the penalty resulted in a first down at the 2.
Enter Trent Tompkins, who is listed as a quarterback on the roster but has done nearly everything this season except sell popcorn at the concession stand. Tompkins took a direct snap on the first down and went straight ahead, plunging into a pile of bodies and being stopped short of the goal line.
The middle did not work, so Tompkins went outside on second down. The Aggies went with four tight ends. McCallan Castles and Evan Bearden were on the left, with Castles in the backfield between Bearden and left tackle Nick Amoah. Bearden chipped linebacker Winston Reid as Castles and Amoah came around behind him to lead the way for Tompkins. Reid got away from Bearden only to get knocked on his fanny and into the end zone by Amoah.
Tompkins waltzed into the end zone with 27 seconds to play. That was the Aggies’ 43rd running play compared with 35 pass attempts. Hawkins must have known what he was doing when he told the players on Friday that they would win. “I’ve never done that,” Hawkins explained Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “I didn’t do it for bragging. I didn’t do it for confidence. I really felt like that.”
Isaiah Thomas has been worth his weight in yards as a punt returner for UC Davis. That might come as a surprise to anyone who checks statistics for Big Sky Conference teams. Thomas ranks sixth with an average of 6.6 yards per return and that is only after a 31-yard return last Saturday in a 60-27 victory over Dixie State.
Head coach Dan Hawkins can live with Thomas’ paltry average when it comes to measuring the senior’s effectiveness as a punt returner after three games this season. Hawkins would much rather think of how many yards Thomas can save the Aggies by catching a punt instead of letting the ball bounce and roll away.
“We don’t call (Thomas) the punt returner. We call him the punt catcher,” Hawkins said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. He was joined by Thomas and associate head coach Cha’pelle Brown. “Pretty much every time the ball hits the ground, you’re going to lose an average of 19 yards. Every time he catches one, that’s (an advantage of) 19 yards before (the offense) even starts.”
Every yard will count for UC Davis on Saturday when the Aggies battle Weber State in Ogden, Utah. UC Davis is ranked 12th and Weber State 15th in the FCS Coaches Poll. The Wildcats are the four-time defending Big Sky champions and claimed the title outright for the first time in the spring by going 5-0. Weber State shared the title with UC Davis and Eastern Washington in 2018. And there were plenty of folks at the time that thought the Aggies were not deserving because they did not play the Wildcats three years ago.
A shocking loss to Northern Arizona cost Weber State the outright title in 2018 because the Wildcats beat Eastern Washington, which crushed UC Davis 59-20. All those folks who questioned whether the Aggies were worthy of sharing the championship might have gotten their answer in 2019 when Weber State paid a visit to UC Davis and came away with a 36-20 victory. The Aggies had just 44 yards rushing in the loss, their lowest total on the ground since staggering to 13 yards four years ago in a 41-3 loss to … Weber State.
Hawkins looks forward to the day when Weber State returns to Davis. The rivals clashed in Ogden last March with Weber State pulling out an 18-15 victory and will do so again just 195 days later. “I should have bought a condo there,” Hawkins quipped. “We’re very used to the hotel there, the field there and the trip there.”
Weber State fans will have to be at their best to match the electricity in Davis last Saturday night. Fans returned to UC Davis Health Stadium for the first time since 2019 and 9,865 enjoyed an impressive performance by the Aggies. Ulonzo Gilliam rushed for 186 yards and three touchdowns. The junior also caught one of Hunter Rodrigues’ two touchdown passes. The defense contributed to the victory by intercepting five passes for the first time since 1985.
“It was magical here at the stadium on Saturday night. The stands were packed,” Hawkins said. “Our guys didn’t disappoint.”
Thomas energized the Aggies during pregame warmups by stomping and hollering in front of his teammates. He has stepped out front this season as one of four team captains. That Thomas has become a leader does not surprise Brown, who played for Hawkins at Colorado and was hired by UC Davis in 2017.
“I didn’t wait until he became a captain to tell him that he’s a leader. I told him that years ago,” said Brown, who works with Thomas and the other defensive backs. “But you have to do it the right way to be the captain. That’s why he’s the captain now because he does exactly what we ask him to do. And he’s doing it at a high level.”
Brown made it clear what he expects from the defensive backs. “To have been here for five years and seen the guys develop,” he said, “there are no more excuses.”
Thomas makes no excuses for his punt return average because saving yards for the Aggies is more than important than trying to break a return for a touchdown. “I’m definitely aggressive when it comes to catching a punt,” he said. “It’s harder for the offense to get going when we’re backed up. My goal is if I can get there, I’m going to catch it.”
As a starting safety and return specialist, Thomas has been quite a catch for the Aggies.
Facing 63,000 fans at Cal on Saturday will not rattle Sacramento State quarterback Asher O’Hara. And that is assuming every ticket is sold. With the Golden Bears winless after their first two games in 2021 and playing an FCS team, there could be thousands of seats without a blue and gold bottom in them.
Cal drew 35,117 to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 4 for its first game with fans in attendance since 2019. The modest show of support did not do much good for the Golden Bears, who squandered an early 14-0 lead in a 22-17 loss to Nevada.
Saturday’s game carries the risk of embarrassment for Cal with one Pac-12 team (Washington) having already lost to an FCS team (Montana) this season. The loss was the first by a Pac-12 team in such a game since Washington State was upset by Eastern Washington in 2016. Washington State also lost to Portland State in 2015.
O’Hara would love to add Cal to the list of FBS victims. He will have to play better than he did last Saturday to stand any chance of orchestrating an upset. O’Hara disappointed a crowd of 8,067 in his first game at Hornet Stadium by tossing three interceptions and losing two fumbles in a 34-16 loss to Northern Iowa.
Jake Dunniway relieved O’Hara for Sacramento State’s first two series in the third quarter and lost a fumble to end the second. Turnovers ended six of the Hornets’ 13 possessions. Three ended with Kyle Sentowski field goals. Sacramento State settled for a 25-yard field goal by the junior in the second quarter after driving 64 yards in 13 plays for a first-and-goal at Northern Iowa’s 8-yard line.
The drive drained 7:31 off the clock and was the second longest in the terms of time for the Hornets in two games. Sacramento State had a 7:36 drive against Dixie State on Sept. 4 that resulted in O’Hara throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marshel Martin. To get three points from a drive of more than seven minutes against a team like Northern Iowa is not going to cut it.
Squandering such opportunities will not bolster O’Hara’s case to remain the starter. Dunniway will continue to merit consideration if for no other reason than his 2019 performance against Northern Arizona. Starting in place of the injured Kevin Thomson, Dunniway passed for 354 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-34 victory.
The Hornets trailed 34-24 after a 44-yard punt return by Daron Bland to the Northern Arizona 37-yard line with 2:03 to play. Dunniway threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Gable, the Hornets recovered the onside kick and Pierre Williams caught a 18-yard scoring strike from Dunniway with 23 seconds left.
O’Hara arrived in June after transferring from Middle Tennessee State. He decided to leave and enter the transfer portal after Blue Raiders offensive coordinator Tony Franklin retired. “I felt really comfortable with (Franklin) and he believed in me,” O’Hara said. “When he left, I thought it was a good time for me to leave.”
Franklin’s parting gift was asking O’Hara to contact Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor. Taylor was in the market for a quarterback and Franklin believed O’Hara’s two seasons as the starter for Middle Tennessee State would make him a worthy candidate. In 21 games, O’Hara threw for 4,576 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also put his feet to good use by running for 1,659 yards and 16 scores.
Cal fans should take note that O’Hara’s first start for the Blue Raiders was in front of 110,881 fans at Michigan in 2019. He threw a scare into the Wolverines by scoring on an 18-yard run in the first quarter to give Middle Tennessee State for a 7-0 lead. He threw for 217 yards, rushed for a team-high 58 and accounted for three touchdowns in a 40-21 loss.
That alone would have been enough to pique Taylor’s interest.
“(Franklin) told me that (Taylor) just wants me to hear him out and give him a chance,” O’Hara said. “I was a little skeptical. You can never really rely on just talking to somebody. I hadn’t heard of Sacramento State at the time. We had a Zoom call and talked for about 45 minutes. That led to another Zoom call and another.”
To test Taylor’s sincerity, O’Hara asked the coach to take a look at film of his little brother. Jace had 15 tackles in two games at DuPage, a junior college in Glen Ellyn, Ill., before a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his 2019 season. Glen Ellyn is 16 miles from the brothers’ hometown of Rolling Meadows.
“We were hoping for a walk-on offer for Jace, but they offered us both (scholarships). That made it an easy decision,” said O’Hara, who shares a four-bedroom house with his brother. The extra bedrooms have come in handy this week with the brothers’ parents and grandmother paying a visit. The three will be among those wearing green in a sea of blue and gold Saturday.
Taylor was partial to blue and gold when he was the starting quarterback at Cal from 1986 to ’89. If Taylor is a bit emotional about returning to Memorial Stadium, he has concealed it from his players. “He hasn’t made it anything different this week,” O’Hara said. “He doesn’t want to make this a bigger game than normal.”
It is not normal for an FCS team to beat a Pac-12 squad. Taylor and O’Hara will see what they can do about that on Saturday.
Sleeping on an air mattress in the basement of his uncle’s house was not all that bad. Having to leave his football gear in the garage after getting home from practice at South Tahoe High School was no big deal. His mother believed the smell would keep bears away from the garbage cans outside the family’s home.
Sharing a house with four of his UC Davis teammates has its benefits. There are three full size refrigerators and the garage was turned into a weight room when the five sophomores were stuck at home during the COVID-19 quarantine. Each of the five has a car, so they often squabble for dibs on the driveway.
His comfort level with the Aggies and garage workouts have contributed to McCallan Castles becoming one of the top tight ends in the country. HeroSports.com ranked Castles as the No. 1 returning tight end among FCS teams. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound Castles and Idaho’s Hayden Hatten are the only FCS tight ends to have three touchdown receptions after the first two weeks of the season.
Hunter Rodrigues threw two of his career-high four touchdown passes to Castles last Saturday as UC Davis cruised to a 53-7 win at the University of San Diego. The Aggies avoided a letdown after coming away with a 19-17 victory at Tulsa on Sept. 2. Tulsa is one of eight FBS teams to lose to an FCS opponent so far this season.
UC Davis is one of three Big Sky Conference squads to upset an FBS team in 2021. The others are Eastern Washington (35-33 in double overtime against UNLV) and Montana (13-7 against then-No. 20 Washington). The Grizzlies’ victory over the Huskies was the first by an FCS team against a ranked FBS program since 2016.
Castles played in an FBS vs. FCS game in 2019. He happened to be attending Cal at the time and earned the starting job at tight end as a redshirt freshman. Castles committed to the Golden Bears as a junior at South Tahoe after catching 65 passes for 1,193 yards and 15 touchdowns in the 2016 season. Cal was by no means the only school pursuing the three-star recruit. He also received scholarship offers from Arizona State, Colorado, Duke, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State.
Wanting to play as close as possible to home led Castles to making his verbal commitment to Cal without giving his other suitors the time of day. Adjusting to Berkeley after being raised in South Lake Tahoe, moving to Bethroud, Colo., and then returning to South Lake Tahoe was 100,000 volts of culture shock. Castles had never lived in a city with more than 22,000 residents. More than 42,000 students attend Cal and account for one third of Berkeley’s population.
To say Castles was overwhelmed would be putting it mildly. He would have been better off in the basement of his uncle’s house in South Lake Tahoe. Castles lived with his uncle so he could start the school year at South Tahoe High in 2016 as his parents were clearing out the family’s home in Bethroud.
His decision to leave Cal came after Castles started in the 2019 season opener … against UC Davis. He played the next week against Washington before going to Golden Bears head coach Justin Wilcox to turn in his playbook. Castles would need more than fingers and toes to count how many people he feared he would disappoint by quitting. That paled in comparison, however, to how he would have felt by staying at Cal where he did not belong.
“When you take that (recruiting) visit, you’re usually only around the campus. I didn’t really experience all of Berkeley,” Castles recalled. “I’ve never been a city person. I was calling my mom and dad every week and I’d tell them, ‘I don’t know if I can make it here.’ It was like I was letting the environment affect how much I liked football. I was questioning if I even wanted to play anymore.”
A warm welcome from the Aggies rekindled Castles’ passion, which had been called into question when UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins spoke to Wilcox about Castles’ resolution. “Wilcox said he didn’t know if I loved it anymore,'” Castles said. “When I got to Davis, I knew I had to prove to myself and everybody else that I wanted to be here. For (Hawkins) to let me come in and give me an opportunity to play, it’s been great. This is more my speed.”