He’s just kicking it at Nevada

His return to Vacaville High School on Friday would have been far different if Brandon Talton was nothing more than a walk-on freshman at Nevada with no promise of ever kicking for the Wolf Pack. There would have been no talk of his 56-yard field goal as time expired to beat Purdue on Aug. 30. No one would have asked if his kick made ESPN’s Top 10 Plays and Talton replying it did at No. 3.

His father Drew would not be knocking on a wooden table when he says his son has made all 10 of his field-goal attempts. His parents would be not breathing a sigh of relief because Nevada coach Jay Norvell gave Talton a scholarship about 12 hours after telling him he would kick against Purdue. And his parents would not have been refunded thousands of dollars for a semester of tuition, room and boar

Brandon Talton

Talton would have a English class on Fridays instead of adding it to his three classes on Mondays because he has to be free on Fridays to travel with the team as he has twice in five weeks thus far. He did not need to lower his head to say grace before having breakfast Sunday to realize he has been blessed. He did anyway because as much as his life has changed since Aug. 31, he remains the same.

A bye Oct. 5 allowed Talton, who graduated from Vacaville High in June, and quarterback Carson Strong, a 2018 Will C. Wood graduate, to jump into Talton’s car and come home for the weekend. The bye was also an opportunity for them to catch their breath and get ready for seven more weeks of football.

Nevada returns to action Saturday by hosting San Jose State at 1 p.m. Strong will start as he did in four of the first five games. He was held out of the Sept. 21 game at UTEP to heal his bumps and bruises. Senior Cristian Solano led the Wolf Pack to a 37-21 win over the Miners, but the job again is Strong’s.

Talton also had to contend with a senior, Spencer Pettit, to win the kicking job. Talton was on his way to a team meeting at lunch on Aug. 30 when Norvell took Talton aside and gave him the good news. Talton sat next to Pettit in the meeting as usual and knew Pettit had already been told he was out of luck.

“I’ve never talked to Spencer about it,”  Talton said. “We’re friends. I think we got closer after that.”

Out of respect to Pettit, Talton opted to keep the good news to himself and let his teammates find out on their own. That was his plan until he ran into Strong, who gave Talton a pep talk just in case the former Bulldog got an opportunity to play. Talton eventually cut the ex-Wildcat off and told him he would be.

Talton would have preferred Strong keep it a secret, but he did not say as much. “Carson was so excited for me. He had the biggest smile on his face,” Talton said. “It was Carson who started telling everyone.”

If losing his job to a true freshman was not bad enough, Pettit got kicked in the teeth when Talton won the opener with his 56-yarder. The moment of Norvell presenting Talton with the game ball and a full scholarship after the game was caught on video with Strong providing the shout-out. “And he’s from Vacaville!”

Sleep was a priority for Talton once all the postgame interviews were finished. He turned down an invitation by his parents to go out to dinner and retreated to the five-bedroom apartment he shares with four teammates. He will move to a two-bedroom apartment next year with his sister Nicole, who transferred to Nevada after two years at Sonoma State.

“He was tired,” his father Drew said. “He just crashed.”

A modicum of normalcy had returned  when Talton met his parents for breakfast the following day.   He was not recognized wearing a Nutrishop Vacaville T-shirt and Lulu Lemon shorts instead of his No. 43 jersey. And at 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, Talton hardly looks like a football player at a Division I university.

“It felt like a normal day,” Talton said.

Sure it was.

Eaton has plenty of hair, talent

Nick Eaton leads UC Davis in sacks with 4.5 and tackles for loss with 8.5

Nick Eaton is making a name for himself in his second year at UC Davis. The redshirt freshman is receiving more playing time at outside linebacker because he makes the most of every minute on the field. The Whitney High School graduate leads the Aggies in sacks with 4.5 and tackles for loss with 8.5. 

Four of those tackles for loss and one sack came last Saturday as UC Davis ended a three-game losing streak by holding off Cal Poly 48-24. Eaton also regained momentum for the Aggies after the Mustangs trimmed a 34-0 deficit to 10 on a 69-yard touchdown pass from Jalen Hamler to Quentin Harrison.

UC Davis gambled on its ensuing possession by going for it on fourth-and-2 at the 33-yard line. Jake Maier’s incomplete pass gave the ball back to the Mustangs, however, and Hamler’s 18-yard dash put Cal Poly in the red zone. One play later, Eaton figured it was time to take matters into his own hands.

Eaton’s assignment against Cal Poly’s triple option offense was to contain Hamler and force the quarterback to pitch the ball. Only this time, Eaton went for the ball instead of Hamler and tipped the pitch – to himself. Seventy-eight yards later, the Aggies had increased their lead to 41-24 with 11:23 to go.

“I gave myself a little more space to have a better force angle (on Hamler),” Eaton said. “(Hamler) pitched it slow and I was able to get a hand on it. Once I felt the ball secure on my chest, I ran as fast as I could.”

His timely touchdown along with the tackles and one sack are why Eaton is the Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Sky Conference. Last year, he won the George Belenis Award as the Aggies’ scout defensive player of the year.  It would be safe to say the scout award is one no player wants to win twice.

Scout duty ended for Eaton when he started in the Aug. 31 opener at Cal. He saw to that with six tackles, one sack and a forced fumble in the Aggies’ 27-13 loss. Having his father Ed at Memorial Stadium made the day even more memorable. Ed misses most of his son’s games because he is the defensive coordinator at Antelope Valley College. Fortunately for Ed, the Marauders’ first game was Sept 7.

“He was nervous, but I thought he played well,” Ed said during a telephone interview Oct. 16. “He hung in there.” 

Ed chuckled when asked he ever attempted to talk his son into playing at Antelope Valley. “He’s not a JC player,” said Ed, who added he and his son usually chat three times a week. “He belongs (at UC Davis).”

A coach’s son, an award-winning linebacker, the fourth-leading tackler for UC Davis … Eaton will take any of those over being described as the guy with the long hair or being mistaken as Samoan or Tongan. He has not cut his hair since his sophomore year in high school, much to the surprise of his father.

“He was always buzzed as a kid,” said Ed, who has nothing against teen boys sporting long hair other than he thought it was no longer cool until his son let his grow. “I guess it came back with a vengeance.”

Eaton digs his hair so much than he runs the risk of it being pulled in a game rather than stuff it in his helmet. Then again, his helmet might not be large enough to contain it all. And given the time and effort he puts into his hair, he prefers not to hide it. When Eaton travels with his teammates for Saturday’s game at Southern Utah, he will make sure to pack a bottle of shampoo and his beloved conditioner.

Nothing less than Garnier Whole Blends with Coconut Oil & Cocoa Butter Extracts will do. Eaton spit out the name as if he was endorsing a product that, according to the bottle, “tames and controls frizzy hair.” 

Tamed and controlled? Hamler would probably say Eaton is neither, especially after chasing him for 78 yards.

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.”