Remarkable season for Rams

Shawna and Brad Humphries waited with open arms Feb. 25 for their daughter Brianna to emerge from the locker room at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. Brianna had just led Dixon High School’s girls basketball team to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship. Her proud parents were eager to embrace the 6-foot-1 senior for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration.

Brianna blew right past her parents, however, just as she did with any Calaveras player who dared to get in her way during the Rams’ 48-42 victory. Her first celebratory hug other than with a teammate or coach was reserved for her biggest fan and tiniest relative. Brianna hoisted her 6-year-old cousin, Sebastian Fernandez, into her arms in much the same manner she had lifted her teammates with 27 points and 16 rebounds.

According to Brianna, her bond with Sebastian stems from each being the only child in their respective families. It also might be because their birthdays are one day apart and make for a perfect time to have a family get-together. And when Sebastian began to play baseball, Brianna shared the fundamentals she learned in softball.

“I don’t have many cousins living near me,” Brianna said. “(Sebastian) has always been there for me. It’s always been me and him. We’re two peas in a pod.”

Sebastian is just old enough to remember when Brianna was down and out in her junior year after tearing the meniscus in her right knee. She sustained the injury with her AAU team, which kept her active when the 2020-21 high school basketball season was postponed to late April and then shortened to just 10 Golden Empire League games.

Such a setback was nothing new for Brianna even though she said the pain was far worse than when she tore two ligaments and the meniscus in the same knee as a freshman. The brace she now wears on her right knee suggests she is not 100 percent, but anyone fortunate enough to have watched Brianna during the section playoffs will say that nothing appears to be wrong with her.

Her reconstructed knee is why Brianna has decided to play softball in college at San Diego Christian instead of opting for basketball or water polo. She received three scholarship offers for softball, but two came from small colleges in the Midwest and she would rather stay closer to home. UC Davis offered her a scholarship for water polo, but Brianna ranks water polo as her No. 3 sport even though she was the starting goalie for the Rams last November when Dixon won the section Division III championship.

Brianna is not breaking up with basketball because no college showed enough interest in her to offer a scholarship. The words of the surgeon who repaired her knee are still ringing in her ears. He told her matter of factly that her knee would not withstand four years of college basketball. She also remembers the toll of playing as many as five AAU games in a weekend took on her knee last year and likely led to her meniscus tearing for a second time.

Her left knee was an issue in the section championship game. Brianna fell in the third quarter and scraped her knee on the hardwood. Not only did she have to leave the game so her knee could be bandaged, but she also made mistake of touching the scrap and then wiping her hand on her shorts. It took some time for those in charge at Golden 1 Center to find a person with enough medical merit to patch her knee and clean the stain on her shorts.

“They were taking like forever. It was a whole fiasco,” said Brianna, who sprinted to the scorers table once her knee was bandaged and returned to the court at the next break in the action. There was just one slight problem, however. Brianna was in such a hurry to re-enter the game that she did not think of checking with head coach Mike Gilliard as she sprinted by him to find out which teammate she would be replacing.

There are plenty of folks in Dixon who will say Brianna is irreplaceable, but she does not act as if she is. She does not clamor for attention even though she was the center of it after Dixon defeated Calaveras. As her teammates made their way to the press conference room, Brianna was stopped on the court by the Sac-Hi Sports camera crew for an interview. Once she rejoined the team, reporters wasted no time in asking her about everything from her upbringing and parents (Brad played football at Vacaville High and Shawna was a swimmer at Dixon) to her knee injuries and college aspirations. She did not expect or want to be thrust into the spotlight.

“I didn’t want it to be all about me. It was a team effort,” Brianna said. “We knew from the beginning (of the season) that we were aiming for something much higher than league. We were shooting for state. That was our whole goal. We all know we can do it.”

It was not meant to be for the Rams, however. Dixon defeated Chico in the first round of the Northern California Division III playoffs for its 19th consecutive victory, but the Rams were no match against Oakland Tech in a 78-38 rout. At least Humphries and her teammates can say they lost to the best Division III girls team in the state after Oakland Tech claimed the championship with a 39-33 victory over La Salle.

Vanden QB saves best for last

Tre Dimes would like to apologize to Vanden High School football fans for taking so long to get his act together Saturday night. Adrenaline and nerves got the best of the quarterback through the first three quarters of the state Division 3-AA championship game. And Aquinas did not do the junior any favors by flushing him out of the pocket and forcing him to throw on the run.

His yellow mouthpiece with black fangs absorbed the brunt of Dimes’ frustration. He chewed on it like a cow chomping on cud. The Vikings trailed 13-0 entering the fourth quarter after averaging 58 points in four playoff games. Dimes had thrown four or more touchdown passes in six consecutive games.

Vanden did not need 58 points or four touchdown passes from Dimes to win its first state championship. All the Vikings had to do was keep the faith in their quarterback because he has rarely let them down. Dimes regained his mojo in the final seven minutes to lead Vanden to a thrilling 14-13 victory.

“He’s our No. 1 on offense,” guard Blake Waldrop said of Dimes. “He gets us going.”

Vacaville has been the only team to hold Vanden to fewer than 20 points this season in posting a 35-17 victory Oct. 15 that propelled the Bulldogs to the Monticello Empire League title. Once that crown slipped through the Vikings’ fingers, they set their sights on bringing home the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title. They got it by mauling Merced 49-21 in Stockton and then rolled to a 56-21 rout at Windsor in the Northern California Regional.

Nothing was that easy against Aquinas.

Time was running out on the Vikings when Dimes broke the goose egg by lofting a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jamai East with 6:31 to play. Aquinas was forced to punt on its ensuing possession after Vanden linebacker Orion Null broke into the backfield to take down Jusyis Solis on third-and-7.

“The pressure was on,” Null said as he was mobbed by his family on the field after the game. “I had to do my job and make a play.” Not only did his play force Aquinas to relinquish the ball, but it also allowed Vanden to avoid using its last two timeouts on defense to save precious seconds for the offense.

East’s first touchdown came on a fade pattern to the right corner of the end zone. His second with 1:08 to play epitomized his connection with Dimes. East drove cornerback Cesar Fernandez into the end zone, stopped on a dime as Fernandez was still backpedaling and broke left. Dimes rolled to his right, planted his back foot and fired a strike to East to tie the score.

Diego Nunez-Smith followed with the biggest extra-point kick in the history of high school extra-point kicks to put Vanden ahead. East sealed the deal for the Vikings with an interception. And by the way, he also blocked the Falcons’ extra-point attempt after their second touchdown in the third quarter.

Daniel Hughes’ helmet

Dimes is at his best when he can set his feet and unleash his right arm. The Falcons made every effort to not let that happen during the first 36 minutes by putting pressure right in Dimes’ face. Dimes showed signs of panic by not keeping his eyes on his receivers and instead looking to see what trouble was coming his way. Dimes was sacked six times in the first three quarters and bounced a few passes as if he was playing point guard in basketball.

Offensive coordinator Joel “Blue” Isaac had to find a way to snap Dimes out of his funk, so he took the quarterback aside on the sideline for a face-to-face conversation. Had Isaac been chewing gum, Dimes would have known the flavor.

“I told him there’s 11 guys on the field. It’s not all on your shoulders,” Isaac said. “I knew he knew it, but I just reiterated it.”

A 13-0 deficit in a state championship game is nothing compared to the loss the Vikings suffered last April when junior Daniel Hughes died after a shooting. The Vikings will never forget how hard Hughes worked and how he demanded everyone else wearing a jersey to do the same. There was no quit in Hughes, so the Vikings refuse to surrender even when it appears all is lost.

“Daniel never stopped fighting no matter what the score was,” Dimes said. “We had to fight through this game. He would be so proud of us.”

That he is.

Plenty on line in Causeway

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Miles Hastings will start at quarterback for UC Davis in the Causeway Classic.

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.

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Eric Barriere

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.”

One-two punch at quarterback

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Jake Dunniway has no problem sharing the quarterback job for the Hornets.

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.

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Asher O’Hara

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.”



Former Wildcat keeps his head

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.

Tayvian Cunningham reaches the end zone sans his helmet. (photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics)

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.”

To QB or not QB for UC Davis

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.

Trent Tompkins and the 6-1 Aggies will pay a visit to Cal Poly on Saturday.

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.

Hunter Rodrigues

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.”

UCD senior in leading role

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.”

Isaiah Thomas

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.

Sac State turns tight end loose

Troy Taylor has some nerve to think he can get away with saying Marshel Martin might be the best tight end in college football. The Sacramento State coach has apparently spent far too days out in the sun without a cap on his bald head. The Sporting News ranked the top 25 college tight ends in the country and Martin did not make the cut, so Taylor might want to pipe down.

Martin can prove Taylor has not lost all of his marbles this season by matching or surpassing his productivity as a freshman in 2019. Martin bolted out of the starting gate last Saturday in St. George, Utah with seven receptions for 56 yards and two touchdowns in the Hornets’ 19-7 victory at Dixie State.

Marshel Martin

It took the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Martin all of one game in 2021 to set a career high for receptions. He accounted for more than one third of the 19 passes completed by quarterbacks Asher O’Hara (13-of-21) and Jake Dunniway (6-of-9). O’Hara started in his debut with the Hornets after transferring from Middle Tennessee State to join his brother Jace. Dunniway appeared in eight games with the Hornets in 2019 and made one start.

Sacramento State managed just 17 points despite advantages in total offense (400 yards to 209), total plays (76 to 55) and time of possession (37:56 to 22:04). The victory was the Hornets’ first in Taylor’s 14 games at the helm in which they failed to score 20 points. They averaged 43.5 points in their nine victories in 2019. Sacramento State opted not to participate in the Big Sky Conference’s makeshift 2021 spring season.

Martin did not know how he would fit at Sacramento State when he arrived in 2018 from St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo. He was a running back with the Bruins and capped his junior season with a 72-yard touchdown run in the 2016 state Division 6-A championship game as St. Patrick-St. Vincent defeated Strathmore 29-28. He also contributed to the Bruins claiming the 2017 state Division IV title in basketball.

His senior year was more of the same. Martin ran wild in the North Coast Section playoffs, gaining a combined 446 yards with eight touchdowns in wins over Stellar Prep and Clear Lake. St. Patrick-St. Vincent reached the Northern California championship game, but that was the end of the road as Strathmore settled a score by the score of 49-35.

Sacramento State was squared away at running back in 2018 with Elijah Dotson, who ran for 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore. The Hornets finished 0-7 in the Big Sky and 2-8 overall, leading to the firing of head coach Jody Sears. Changes began with the hiring of Taylor and one of those was Martin finding a new address at tight end.

Martin accepted the switch for no other reason than a freshman knows better than to question a coach, especially one with Taylor’s credentials. Taylor compiled a 58-3 as co-head coach at Folsom High from 2012 to ’15. The former Cal quarterback then spent one year as offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington and two seasons in the same job at Utah. He took a $285,000 pay cut by leaving Utah and signing a seven-year contract at Sacramento State.

As far as Martin is concerned, Taylor is worth every dollar of his $240,000 annual salary. Martin put his faith in Taylor because “he knows what he’s doing. It was their decision to move me (to tight end). I feel like I’m an athlete and I can play anywhere. It’s not always going to be about you. This is a team sport. You have to work for your teammates.”

Taylor’s impact with the Hornets was immediate. Sacramento State finished 9-4 in 2019 and claimed a share of the Big Sky championship. Martin had a hand (or two) in the Hornets’ success with 39 receptions for 550 yards and seven touchdowns. He set a school record for most touchdown catches in a season by a tight end.

Once Taylor took the reins at Sacramento State, he did not need much time to figure out Martin was special. “He just loves playing football,” said Taylor, who won the Eddie Robinson Award in 2019 as the FCS Coach of the Year. “He could be a great defensive player honestly. He could have been a great running back. He can do a lot of different things. He’s one of the fastest players on the team. He’s definitely in the top three, which is unusual for a tight end.”

The gushing continued when Taylor went on to say, “When he catches the ball, we joke around as a (coaching) staff that he legitimately thinks he’s going to score every time he gets the ball. That’s how he runs. He’s strong and athletic. He doesn’t run like he’s going to go down. That’s why he breaks so many tackles. I just happen to think he might be the best tight end in the country. He’s that good.”

Aggies can cash in with victory

Playing at Tulsa on Thursday was far less lucrative and perilous for UC Davis than going to USC on Saturday. The Aggies reaped the financial benefits of losing to three Pac-12 teams in the past five seasons. After scoring first in each of those three games, UC Davis remembered it had no business occupying the same field as Oregon (2016), Stanford (2018) and Cal (2019)

UC Davis was in store for another payday as easy prey for USC, but fans of the Trojans could not believe their beloved team would stoop so low by opening the 2021 season against an FCS program. USC is one of just three FBS teams to have never paid an FBC squad to roll over and play dead. The other two are UCLA and Notre Dame. The Trojans eventually caved in and backed out of the game.

Colton Lamson

The cost for doing so was $725,000. The Aggies not only bolstered their coffers, but they also avoided losing players to injury in a no-win situation. It would be suffice to say Tulsa will never be mistaken for USC.

Storylines abound this season for UC Davis. The Aggies are striving to regain their footing after a 5-7 finish in 2019. UC Davis raised the bar in 2018 by sharing the Big Sky Conference championship for the first time and making its inaugural appearance in the FCS playoffs. The Aggies beat Northern Iowa 23-16 in their postseason debut at home and then lost 34-29 to Big Sky rival Eastern Washington in Cheney to finish 10-3.

Falling to Eastern Washington is nothing new for the Aggies, who are 0-9 against the Eagles. A victory over Eastern Washington last April 3 would have sent UC Davis to the playoffs for the second time. UC Davis went 3-2 in the makeshift spring season and missing the playoffs was just fine with Aggies coach Dan Hawkins. UC Davis would have had to practice for two weeks after losing 32-22 to Eastern Washington before the playoff bracket was announced.

Hawkins never wanted five games in the spring, so playing into May was not at all appealing. He said as much at his press conference earlier this week. “We wanted to get our guys back in a normal cycle of lifting and running,” Hawkins said. “We have not had the usual training camp. We weren’t trying to grind our guys every single day. We were trying to pace them and play the long game.”

Colton Lamson started at right tackle against Tulsa. He lost the job to Nick Amoah after nine games in 2019 and did not start in the first two games last spring. Lamson supplanted Kooper Richardson in the Aggies’ 73-24 rout of Cal Poly. Richardson is playing at Sacramento State as a graduate transfer. He was joined by his brother Kaden, a freshman, in transferring from UC Davis to Sacramento State. The two have reunited with their father, Kris, who is the Hornets’ assistant head coach and offensive line guru.

His demotion in 2019 left Lamson at a crossroads. He made the right turn because “I don’t want to be a negative guy. I wasn’t going to pout about it. It drove me. It made me a better player. I think (the coaches) saw how hard I was working in camp. I really prepared myself. I’m supremely confident because I put in the work.”

Cole Hansen

As Lamson has worked to rebuild his confidence, linebacker Cole Hansen is trying to repair his reputation. Hansen was ejected in the fourth quarter of the April 3 loss to Eastern Washington after being called for targeting. Hansen lowered his helmet to drop running back Dennis Merritt for a 1-yard loss on third-and-3 at the Aggies’ 27-yard line. The penalty extended what turned into a 69-yard drive for the Eagles that ended with a field goal and a 10-point lead with 5:34 to play.

Hansen apparently did not learn his lesson after being warned about targeting two weeks earlier against Cal Poly. The Big Sky Conference notified Hansen that he should have been ejected against the Mustangs. That would have been an easy pill to swallow in the Aggies’ 49-point victory. His infraction against Eastern Washington came six plays after UC Davis, which trailed 16-0 at halftime, scored a touchdown with 11:11 remaining to trail 29-22.

That his left hand was in a cast might explain why Hansen resorting to lowering his helmet. He broke his thumb a week before the March 6 opener at Idaho State and feared he would be out of action. He finished the spring as the Aggies’ second-leading tackler with 34, including a team-high 7.5 for loss. It would have been 35 if his third-down stop against Eastern Washington had not been nullified.

“I could understand that call from the referee’s point of view if it’s more of an open-field situation with a defenseless receiver,” Hansen said. “You don’t see that too often in college football when you’re in between the tackles and it’s short yardage and you’re trying to make a play. I thought it was clean.”

With his left thumb healed and the cast removed, Hansen is targeting a clean slate this season.

Minor finds coaching is calling

Damon Minor is in his seventh season as the hitting coach for the River Cats.

Damon Minor did not make it to the bitter end of the Sacramento River Cats’ fifth consecutive loss. The hitting coach was ejected in the fifth inning Thursday, long before the Tacoma Rainiers scored three runs in the 12th for a 10-7 victory.

Frustration might have gotten the best of the 47-year-old Minor. At the time of Minor’s early departure, Tacoma starting pitcher Ryan Weber had retired the first 13 Sacramento batters to face him. Minor lost his temper after Jaylin Davis struck out on a foul tip to open the fifth inning. Heliot Ramos poked a single as Minor was making his way to the clubhouse to end Weber’s perfect start.

Damon Minor offers advice to Mauricio Dubon, who is hitting .338 in 38 games at Sacramento.

At least Minor was spared from being in the dugout when the game ended shortly after 11 p.m. With Jazon Krizen starting the bottom of the 12th at second base, Chadwick Tromp struck out and Steve Duggar lined into a double play to send home what was left of a paltry crowd of 3,799. The loss dropped the River Cats to 38-52 and solidified their hold on last place in the West Division of Triple-A West, 15 games behind the Reno Aces and 13.5 behind the Rainiers.

Triple-A teams were reconfigured this year into two divisions. There are 20 teams in the East and 10 in the West, which has five-team East and West divisions. The switch spelled the end of the Pacific Coast League, which began in 1903. The River Cats will forever have the distinction of being the last PCL champions in 2019.

First-year Tacoma manager Kris Negron is all too familiar with Triple-A. Of the Vanden High graduate’s 1,439 games in the minor leagues, 891 were at Triple-A. He played 170 games in the majors – 96 with the Cincinnati Reds, 30 with the Dodgers, 28 with the Seattle Mariners (Tacoma’s parent club) and 16 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 35-year-old Negron retired after finishing the 2019 regular season with the Dodgers. He did not make the postseason roster.

With Thursday’s victory, the Rainiers avoided their first four-game losing streak of the season. Losing streaks have hounded the River Cats all season. Their current five-game skid is their third of at least five games in 2021. They are striking out far too often, leading Triple-A West with 881, and walking far too many.

The River Cats issued eight free passes Thursday and lead all of Triple-A with 443 in 90 games. Their parent club, the San Francisco Giants, has issued the fewest walks in the majors with 317 in 121 games. There is nothing Minor can do about Sacramento’s lack of pitching control. He has more than enough on his mind these days with all the strikeouts.

With 12 strikeouts Thursday, the River Cats reached double digits for the seventh time in their past 10 games. They also had 12 on Monday when they came with four outs of being no-hit by the Salt Lake Bees. Mauricio Dubon singled with two outs in the eighth inning to salvage a modicum of pride for the River Cats.

Minor has his work cut out for him, but he will not be chasing players around the clubhouse with words of advice or invitations to the batting cage. Even with all the strikeouts, the former Giant can look on the bright side in that Sacramento’s .280 team batting average ranks fourth in all of Triple-A. The River Cats are third in runs scored with 565 and sixth in home runs with 139.

“The real valuable thing I learned over my career is what can translate here,” Minor explained. “Guys going up and down, being ready, those failures and successes, coming off the bench, learning how to play the game when you’re not playing every day. Those challenges I had back then (as a player) have helped me relate to the players now.

“As a hitting coach, you’re helping with more with the psychology of it. Some guys need you to come to them. With some guys, you need to want for them to come to you. You have to feel the player out and just be ready for when they need you. You’ve just go to talk to them and relate to them and realize they’re human.”

His own career did not turn out as Minor had hoped. He spent parts of four seasons with the Giants, hitting .232 with 13 home runs in 136 games. Not only he did struggle at the plate, but he was limited in the field after being a designated hitter in four years at the University of Oklahoma. He was a big reason why the Sooners won the national championship in 1994 by batting .298 with 14 home runs and 53 RBI.

Minor laughed when asked what advice he would have for a player such as himself. “I would tell him to get out of your head,” Minor said. “I would say you have to understand it’s a process. You can get frustrated. If you get in your way, then you’re battling yourself and the pitcher. It’s going to be a hard day if you do that.”