Aggies deserved nothing more

Five losses did not stop Gardner-Webb from making the FCS playoffs. The Runnin’ Bulldogs earned an automatic bid by overcoming a four-game losing streak to go 5-0 in the Big South Conference. Eleven conference champions earned automatic bids. Sacramento State earned one by finishing 8-0 in the Big Sky for the second consecutive year.

Five Big Sky teams made the 24-team playoff field. Sacramento State is the No. 2 seed after finishing 11-0 in the regular season for the first time. The Hornets will have a bye in the first round and will host the Davidson-Richmond winner on Dec. 3. Montana State also finished 8-0 in the Big Sky and earned the No. 4 seed with a 10-1 overall record.

Also representing the Big Sky will be Weber State (9-2), Idaho (7-4) and Montana (7-4) after each team was awarded an at-large berth. Weber State and Idaho both finished 6-2 to share third place. Montana got a berth despite finishing sixth in the Big Sky at 4-4.

C.J. Hutton catches a pass for UC Davis with Sacramento State’s Caleb Nelson covering.

Montana’s four victories were against teams with a combined conference record of 7-25. The Grizzlies apparently made a case for a berth with a 31-24 overtime loss at Sacramento State and a 24-21 loss at Weber State. Montana’s last shot for a significant Big Sky victory was at Montana State on Saturday and the Grizzlies lost 55-21.

UC Davis finished ahead of Montana at 5-3 and had one significant victory. The Aggies traveled to Idaho and won 44-26 in a game that was not as close as the final score. Like Montana, UC Davis stood toe to toe with Weber State in a 17-12 loss and lost 27-21 in the Causeway Classic on Saturday after taking Sacramento State down to the wire.

A 44-yard field goal by Kyle Sentkowski stretched Sacramento State’s lead to six points with 43 seconds to play. UC Davis was out of timeouts with 92 yards to go. Miles Hastings completed three consecutive passes to C.J. Hutton for 50 yards to give the Aggies a first down at the Hornets’ 42-yard line as the record crowd of 23,073 went bananas.

The clock stopped long enough for the ball to be placed. Once the clock restarted, UC Davis could have spiked the ball to save enough time for a Hail Mary pass to the end zone, The Aggies instead opted to run a play, but Trent Tompkins could not get out of bounds after catching a pass from Hastings. The clock expired and so did the Aggies’ season.

Rex Connors (4) and Jayce Smalley team up to stop Cameron Skattebo.

That was hardly the first bad decision this season by coach Dan Hawkins and his son Cody, the offensive coordinator. In the second quarter of the 41-24 loss at Montana State, UC Davis had Matteo Perez carry the ball instead of Ulonzo Gilliam on third-and-1 at the Bobcats’ 19-yard line. Perez lost 2 yards and the Aggies settled for a 38-yard field goal by Isaiah Gomez. Montana State answered with a field goal of its own to lead 24-13 at halftime.

Gilliam had 24 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown against the Bobcats, but the Aggies’ all-time leading rusher was on the sideline when UC Davis gave the ball to an untested sophomore rather than a proven senior with so much at stake.

A victory against Weber State would have likely sent UC Davis into the playoffs, but the Aggies paid the price for playing it safe. UC Davis was a yard away from a touchdown on the final play of the first half when Hawkins called for Gomez to try a 18-yard field goal. The kick was deflected and went wide right, leaving the Aggies with a 14-6 deficit.

Gomez set a UC Davis record for most field-goal attempts in a game with five. And they were all in the first half. Gomez made two. At least the Aggies did not have Perez attempt a field goal or ask him to throw a pass instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock.

Perez will return in 2023. Gilliam and Gomez will not. Thanks for coming and drive home safely.

Success at last for Sac State

The Hornets are in good hands when wide receiver Pierre Williams has the ball.

Three victories in 2019 were enough to convince Pierre Williams that Sacramento State made the right decision in hiring Troy Taylor. The wide receiver was a redshirt freshman in 2018 when the Hornets finished 0-7 in the Big Sky Conference and 2-8 overall. A 3-2 start in 2019 made Williams a believer in his new head coach and a new direction.

Williams knew nothing about Taylor other than his father mentioning that Taylor had been successful at Folsom High School. The proof for Williams would have to come in what Taylor could do with the Hornets. Victories against Southern Oregon, Northern Colorado and Eastern Washington ensured Sacramento State would not finish 2-8 again.

Even more meaningful for Williams was the Hornets’ newfound perseverance in close losses against two FBS teams, Arizona State and Fresno State. The Hornets trailed 9-0 after three quarters against the Sun Devils in a 19-7 loss. Sacramento trailed 14-12 at halftime in a 34-20 loss to Fresno State. Williams was buying what Taylor was selling.

“It was just a different feeling,” Williams said Wednesday after practice in Hornet Stadium, where UC Davis will come calling on Saturday for the 68th Causeway Classic. “I just knew in 2019 that once we won more than two games that we were going to be OK.”

Pierre Williams

Williams would rather not be reminded these days about 2018. A season that had gone so wrong ended on the worst possible note with a 56-13 loss to UC Davis at the University of Nevada. At least the Hornets were spared from being humiliated at home because the Causeway Classic was moved to escape the wildfire smoke.

Compounding the agony of defeat for the Hornets was having to watch the Aggies celebrate on the field. The victory earned UC Davis a share of the Big Sky championship and its first ticket to the FCS playoffs. Sacramento State ended the season with a seven-game losing streak that resulted in head coach Jody Sears losing his job.

The only solace for Williams was realizing he would have three years to settle the score with UC Davis. “I was close to a lot of the seniors and it was kind of sad to see them crying and upset because it was their last game of ever playing football,” Williams recalled. “I just didn’t want to go through another season like that – not being on top.”

Sacramento State has been nowhere else since Taylor arrived. The Hornets shared the Big Sky title with Weber State in 2019 as both teams finished 7-1. Sacramento State claimed it outright last year by going 8-0 with the cherry on top being a 27-7 victory at UC Davis.

At stake for the Hornets on Saturday will be another perfect finish in the Big Sky, an 11-0 regular season and a top seed in the FCS playoffs. The 24-team playoff field will be announced at 9:30 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU as the dust is settling from the Causeway Classic.

Williams is as healthy as he has been in three years and proved it last Friday night at Portland State. The senior set season highs for receptions (seven) and receiving yards (136). He scored his fifth and sixth touchdowns of the season in Sacramento State’s 45-17 victory.

A torn knee ligament prevented Williams from joining his teammates to celebrate after the 2019 Causeway Classic. Ankle surgery last March forced Williams to miss spring workouts and he was kept out of contract drills when training camp began in August. He began to wonder if he would ever get back to what he once was and what he could be.

“Sometimes I get in my own head. I hadn’t been in a helmet and going live for so long,” said Williams, who caught just two passes for 16 yards against Utah Tech in the season opener Sept. 3. His performance against Portland State “reminded me of who I am.”

In case UC Davis needs a reminder, Williams will provide a refresher course.

It’s now or never for Gilliam

UC Davis football fans must surely remember Ethan Hicks. Who can forget his two carries for 28 yards and a touchdown in the Aggies’ 56-13 victory over Sacramento State in the 2018 Causeway Classic? The game was shifted from UC Davis to the University of Nevada because of smoky skies, but the Aggies still managed to feel right at home.

Hicks’ performance was a total surprise since the senior had more tackles (20) on special teams than rushing attempts (five) in four seasons. Hicks was for once a contributor on offense. Head coach Dan Hawkins prefers to think of all of his players as contributors instead of designating those who are starters and those who do not play much.

UC Davis running back Ulonzo Gilliam

The 43-point victory was the Aggies’ largest against the Hornets since 1982, when UC Davis won 51-6 on its way to finishing 12-1. Hawkins played fullback and Ken O’Brien starred at quarterback as UC Davis won the Northern California Athletic Conference championship for the 12th consecutive year. The Aggies were unbeaten until losing to Southwest Texas State in the Division II championship game.

That was then. Hawkins has not been as fortunate since 2018 against Sacramento State. The Hornets have turned the tide against the Aggies and the entire Big Sky Conference since Troy Taylor became Sacramento State’s head coach. The Hornets shared the Big Sky title with Weber State in 2019 and won it outright last season by going 8-0.

Sacramento State has not lost a Big Sky game on the road with Taylor at the helm. The last conference loss away from Hornet Stadium was in 2018 against UC Davis in Reno. That was the last game for Hornets coach Jody Sears after going 20-35 in five years. Sacramento State lured Taylor away from Utah by offering him a seven-year contract

The Hornets beat the Aggies 27-17 in 2019 by shutting out UC Davis in the second half. Sacramento State won 27-7 last season by holding UC Davis scoreless in the first three quarters. The Aggies would have hosted the Hornets in 2020, but COVID-19 led to the season being reduced to five spring games in 2021. Sacramento State opted to sit out.

Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor

Taylor is an offensive wizard, but defense was the difference for Sacramento State in those two victories. UC Davis managed just 61 rushing yards in 2019 and 73 last Nov. 20. Ulonzo Gilliam is the Aggies’ all-time leading rusher and gained 138 yards against the Hornets in 2018. Gilliam had more yards receiving (62) than rushing (61) against Sacramento State in 2019. The same was true last year as Gilliam was held to 17 yards on eight carries and caught eight passes for 58.

Gilliam has 43 rushing touchdowns in his career, but he has not reached the end zone in three games against the Hornets. He had three touchdown runs Saturday in the Aggies’ 46-26 victory at Idaho, setting career highs for carries (30) and rushing yards (164). Gilliam is the Big Sky’s second-leading rusher in 2022 with 1,132 yards.

Sacramento State’s Cameron Skattebo is the leader with 1,154 yards on 33 fewer carries than Gilliam. Skattebo played in his first Causeway Classic as a true freshman last November and rushed for 69 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown dash. The two talented backs will meet again Saturday when Sacramento State (10-0, 7-0 Big Sky) hosts UC Davis (6-4, 5-2) in what could be Gilliam’s swan song with the Aggies.

UC Davis has to win to have any shot at being among the 24 teams in the FCS playoffs. The field will be announced on Nov. 20. As many as five Big Sky teams – Sacramento State, Montana State, Weber State, Idaho and Montana – could make it since all five are ranked in the latest FCS Coaches Poll. UC Davis made it six this week when it broke into the poll at No. 24.

The Aggies will need much more than 17 yards on the ground from Gilliam to stand any chance.

More expected of Aggies coach

Four convincing victories in the past four weeks have done nothing more for UC Davis than prove the Aggies can have their way with the also-rans in the Big Sky Conference. More is expected of a team that coach Dan Hawkins predicted would be the best in the program’s history. Then again, maybe more should be expected of Hawkins.

UC Davis alumni cheered when Hawkins returned to his alma mater in 2017. The cheers became much louder in 2018 when the Aggies went 10-3, shared the Big Sky championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time. That seems much longer than four years ago. COVID-19 deserves most of the blame, but Hawkins is by no means innocent.

Let’s not forget that Hawkins won in 2018 with players recruited by Ron Gould, who is now the running backs coach at Stanford. Gould was 12-33 in four seasons with the Aggies with his only saving grace being three victories in four tries against Sacramento State.

Dan Hawkins

Erase the 2018 season and Hawkins’ record is 26-23. He has guided the Aggies to winning records in just two of his first five years at the helm and that includes a 3-2 record in the spring of 2021. And let’s remember that Sacramento State opted not to play in that makeshift spring season. Hawkins is 0-2 against Troy Taylor and the Hornets.

That will surely become 0-3 in two weeks when the Aggies visit Hornet Stadium for the 68th edition of the Causeway Classic. The Hornets have not won three straight against their rivals since winning five in a row from 1988 to 1991. It will be a must win game for the Aggies if they want to stand any chance of advancing the FCS playoffs for the third time since 2018.

And that is only if UC Davis can come out with a victory on Saturday at Idaho. The Vandals are ranked No. 25 in the FCS Coaches Poll three weeks after knocking off No. 3 Montana 30-23 in Missoula. The coaches made it clear how they feel about the Aggies’ four-game winning streak against cupcakes. None of them voted for UC Davis.

Idaho can hang its hat on upsetting Montana and losing by just three points to No. 3 Sacramento State on the road Oct. 29. UC Davis does not have one victory worthy of comparison. Narrow losses at No. 1 South Dakota State (24-22) and at home to No. 6 Weber State (17-12) are noteworthy, but there are no brownie points for falling short.

Seventeen of Hawkins’ 36 wins have come against Cal Poly, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado and Portland State. Those teams are a combined 7-23 in the Big Sky this season. Four wins were against the University of San Diego. Cal Poly is 0-6 in the Big Sky and 1-8 overall this season with that one victory coming against San Diego.

At least a few of those victories had to be taken into account when Hawkins got a six-year contract extension after last season. Cal Poly, Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado can look forward to more losses. And UC Davis fans can look forward to five more years of the Aggies being just good enough to finish in the middle of the pack.

That will likely be the Aggies’ fate this season. If this is the best team in Aggies history, maybe Hawkins should be history. What began as a feel good story when Hawkins returned has become a tale of mediocrity. And this is the worst time for UC Davis to be stuck in neutral with Taylor pushing the pedal to the metal at Sacramento State.

UC Davis raised the bar in 2018, but it now appears to be out of reach. Hawkins would have to climb on Taylor’s shoulders to stand any chance of coming close. At least he has five more years to try.

Much more on fourth-and-4

No one would have questioned Troy Taylor had the Sacramento State coach called a running play on fourth-and-4 at Montana’s 30-yard line. Cameron Skatteboo is averaging 7.8 yards per carry and leads the Big Sky Conference in rushing yards with 851, so the sophomore was about as close as Taylor could come to having a sure thing.

Taylor figured the Grizzlies would be expecting Skatteboo to carry the ball. Taylor also anticipated Montana’s defensive backs would jam Sacramento State’s wide receivers to prevent a short pass by quarterback Jake Dunniway from turning into a first down. Taylor made it seem as if Montana would be ready for whatever play he called.

The Grizzlies had no idea what was coming. Taylor called for wide receiver Jared Gipson to run a stutter route on the right side. Gipson accelerated from the line and stutter stepped once he was inside the 25. Montana cornerback Jayden Dawson must have thought Gipson was gearing down to turn back and be in clear view for Dunniway.

Wide receiver Jared Gipson

Dawson bit on the stutter move and Gipson sprinted past him to catch Dunniway’s pass just inside the 5 before going out of bounds. The Grizzlies argued that Gipson had stepped out as he made the catch, but an instant replay review upheld the ruling on the field.

As the play was being reviewed, Gipson watched the replay on the Hornet Stadium scoreboard and it “showed I was clearly out of bounds. I was like ‘Oh no.’ My heart dropped.” His disappointment did not last long as the review upheld his reception for 26 yards.

Gipson was confident the play would work because practice makes perfect – or at least close enough. “We run the play so much that it’s almost like perfection ,” he said. “Well, not perfection. I wouldn’t say perfection. We’re just really good at it.”

The Grizzlies might have prompted Taylor’s call with their aggressive defense. “They bring a lot of pressure and a lot of movement. And they kept bringing it,” Taylor said. “It was a perfect opportunity (for the stutter route) and our guys executed it.”

Quarterback Jake Dunniway

Dunniway has come to think along the same lines as Taylor and was not surprised by the coach’s call even though the senior admitted it was “ballsy. Dunniway added, “(The Grizzlies) were probably thinking we were going to run the ball or throw something short. I thought it might work because they were trying to jam us.”

Asher O’Hara replaced Dunniway on the next play and dashed into the end zone for his 12th rushing touchdown this season to tie the score with 3:39 to play. O’Hara added his 13th in overtime with a 7-yard run as Sacramento State improved to 7-0 with a 31-24 victory.

Students stormed the field last Saturday as midnight approached to celebrate. Dunniway heard the coaches calling for the players to go to the locker room, but he could not break away from all the hugs and pats on the back. ESPN2 televised the game, so a national audience saw how the FCS half of Division I football can be captivating.

Another battle is in store for Sacramento State at 6 p.m. Saturday when Idaho visits Hornet Stadium for a showdown between 4-0 Big Sky teams. The Vandals are 5-2 overall and their two losses have come against FBS teams, Washington State and Indiana.

Hornets unleash Skatteboo

Cameron Skatteboo had yet to be unleashed last October when Sacramento State traveled to Montana and came away with a 28-21 victory. The win was the first for the Hornets in 13 trips to Missoula. The loss was the first at home for the Grizzlies since 2018.

Skatteboo was a sophomore at Rio Linda High School in 2018. He made the varsity team and proved he belonged with the big boys, running for 992 yards and nine touchdowns. That was a preview of coming attractions. Skatteboo was honored as the Sacramento Bee Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 after leading the Knights to the state Division 5A championship by running for 3,550 yards and scoring 42 touchdowns.

Cameron Skatteboo

Rio Linda’s playbook was easy for Skatteboo to comprehend because there were just six running plays out of the Power I formation. Sacramento State’s offense is far more challenging with multiple formations and personnel packages. Hornets head coach Troy Taylor admits to asking more of his running backs than taking a handoff and finding a hole, so Skatteboo was overwhelmed when he first looked at the playbook.

“It was shell shock for sure,” Skatteboo said after practice Tuesday. “I know I’m a smart football player and could learn the playbook. It took a minute to get going. I knew I could get the hang of it. It was just a matter of time for the coaches to trust that I got it.”

Opportunity knocked for Skatteboo last season when junior Elijah Dotson left the program and entered the transfer portal. Skatteboo climbed one rung on the depth chart and playing time followed because Taylor shuffles running backs in and out of the game. Skatteboo saw extensive action for the first time against Northern Arizona last Oct. 23. The freshman’s first run went for 6 yards. His second was an 11-yard burst for a touchdown to give Sacramento State a 30-0 lead en route to a 44-0 victory.

Skatteboo rushed for a team-high 117 yards on 10 carries against the Lumberjacks. After having just two carries for 19 yards in the first five games, Skatteboo ran for 501 yards and six touchdowns on 55 carries in the final six games. He came close to gaining a first down every time he tucked the ball into his arms, averaging 9.12 yards per carry.

“We knew (Skatteboo) was going to be pretty good, but we also knew he had a lot to learn,” Taylor said. “He started getting more and more reps (in practice), so he got comfortable in the offense and got confident. That allowed him to play fast and physical.”

Montana will get its first look at Skatteboo on Saturday night when the Grizzlies invade Hornet Stadium at 8 p.m. ESPN2 picked a great game to televise nationally. Sacramento State is 6-0 for the first time since 1991, ranked No. 2 in the FCS poll for the first time in the program’s history and is the only Division I team (FBS or FCS) to have not trailed at any time in a game this season. Montana is 5-1 and ranked No. 7.

Eastern Washington can give Montana a scouting report of what to expect from Skatteboo, who rushed for a career-high 201 yards and caught a touchdown pass last Saturday in the Hornets’ 52-28 win over the Eagles. Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara split time at quarterback as usual. Dunniway threw for three touchdowns and O’Hara ran for three to give him a team-high 11 rushing scores. Skatteboo is second with five.

Skatteboo has no problem with O’Hara carrying the ball in goal-line situations. And even if he did, he would never say anything. “I’ve never complained, ” he said. “No matter who gets the ball, it’s never been a fight. Of course, I want the ball. I might have thought it myself, but that’s not something you bring to the attention of anybody else. You keep that to yourself and you keep your head down and you play for your tea

Ex-Viking now inflicting pain

Armon Bailey (30) relied on his teammates for support as he battled injuries.

Most of Armon Bailey’s teammates bolted to the locker room once practice ended Tuesday at Sacramento State. Bailey remained on the field for extra work as if the senior was a freshman or sophomore trying to impress the coaches in hopes of earning playing time. Bailey starts at inside linebacker for the Hornets, so his playing time is a given.

Northern Colorado will see plenty of Bailey on Saturday when the Bears pay a visit to Sacramento to battle the Hornets at 6 p.m. The Bears may be in for a long night because they are 2-3 and have allowed an average of 44 points in the three losses. The Hornets are 4-0 and ranked fifth in the latest FCS poll. They are averaging 45 points a game.

Bailey does not take any game for granted. The Vanden High graduate has come too far and endured too much to think he has got it made. Injuries forced Bailey to miss four games in 2019 and nine last season. The Hornets opted not to play in the spring of 2021 when COVID-19 led to the 2020 season being rescheduled and reduced to five spring games.

Spending a few minutes after practice to sharpen his skills is nothing compared with all the Saturdays he spent in street clothes on the sideline. Bailey is majoring in criminal justice, but he has already earned a degree in perseverance. It would have been so easy to toss in his doo rag and limp away with little to show for his college career.

Defensive coordinator Andy Thompson never lost faith in senior Armon Bailey.

Defensive coordinator Andy Thompson never lost faith in Bailey because Bailey never gave Thompson a reason to do so. Bailey attended all team meetings and studied film with his teammates even when he was a bystander at practice and games.

“You have to keep yourself engaged with the team,” said Thompson, who coaches the linebackers. “When you’re connected with the team, when you know your coaches and teammates care about you, you can get through the tough times. (Bailey’s) injuries were setbacks. They were bumps in the road and he had to overcome them.”

The support of his teammates was all Bailey needed to push through his injuries in hopes of rejoining them on the field one day. Injured players are easy to dismiss when they have nothing to contribute, but Bailey’s teammates never turned their backs on him.

“I had dark days, but my teammates were always there to pull me out of it,” Bailey said. “I tried to stay with my teammates as much as possible. I tried to stay inside the game.”

His days are much brighter this season. Bailey leads the Hornets in tackles with 25 after having a total of 16 in victories over Colorado State and Cal Poly the past two weeks. In each of those weeks, he was named the Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Sky Conference. Bailey is just the third defensive player in school history to earn the award twice in a season. Anybody want to bet he will be the first to do it three times?

The awards are a testament to Bailey’s commitment to the Hornets. He strived to come back as much for his teammates and coaches as he did for himself. “That speaks to his character,” Thompson explained. “It’s easy to coach kids who work real hard and are unbelievable people off the field. Armon is an unbelievable kid.”

Bailey believed in himself even in the darkest times. So did Thompson. “He never gave up on me,” Bailey said. “I never had a doubt that I was going to make it back.”

UC Davis gets kicked around

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins admitted Monday to asking too much of kicker Isaiah Gomez in Saturday’s 17-12 loss to Weber State. Gomez set a school record for field-goal attempts in a game with five. And all five came in the first half. The senior made two, shanked two and Weber State’s Maxwell Anderson got a hand on the fifth to send it wide right.

Each miss came from 50 yards. It was surprising that Hawkins called for a field goal from that distance because Gomez has never made a field goal longer than 45 yards. And Gomez has been inconsistent this season, missing as many field goals (six) in four games as he did in 12 games last year.

“I really trust (Gomez) a lot,” Hawkins said, “so I probably put him in some bad situations.” Those situations may have been born out of desperation because the offense scored more touchdowns (six) in defeating San Diego 43-13 on Sept. 17 than it has in three losses (five).

UC Davis tight end McCallan Castles is stopped just short of the goal line after catching a pass from Miles Hastings.

His first 50-yard try Saturday was in the first quarter after quarterback Miles Hastings’ 3-yard pass to running back Ulonzo Gilliam on third-and-12. That was after a 1-yard pass to wide receiver Justin Kraft on second down at the Weber State 36-yard line. The Aggies seemed intent on keeping a tight leash on Hastings, who completed 39 of 57 passes with 21 going for 5 or fewer yards.

Gomez bounced back with a 41-yard field goal with 7:47 to play in the first half to leave UC Davis trailing 14-6. His second miss from 50 came four minutes later. The Aggies gave Gomez one more opportunity by forcing the Wildcats to punt with 1:50 to go. Hastings completed seven consecutive passes for 59 yards to give UC Davis a first-and-goal at the Weber State 1. Hastings made it eight in a row with a pass on first down to tight end McCallan Castles, but Castles was tackled short of the goal line.

That left Hawkins with a choice of going for a touchdown or settling for a gimme field goal from 18 yards. To put that in perspective, an extra-point kick is 20 yards. Hawkins opted for a field goal, but Weber State’s Maxwell Anderson came around the left side to deflect the kick and send it wide right.

Hawkins defended his decision to go for three points because “you don’t want to chase points. It was too early to chase points. If we got that field goal, we’d be down by one score coming out of the tunnel (for the second half).”

Weber State’s Maxwell Anderson (3) celebrates with his teammates after deflecting a short field-goal attempt.

Gomez’s right leg got a break in the second half. He was needed for one kickoff after Hastings’ 19-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver C.J. Hutton with 5:33 to go in the third quarter. The Aggies went for a two-point conversion, but Hastings’ pass to wide receiver Lance Babb fell incomplete.

The loss was difficult for Hawkins to accept because he believes his team outplayed Weber State. The statistics bear that out. The Aggies outgained the Wildcats 417-356, ran 21 more plays, had a six-minute edge in time of possession and forced three turnovers without once giving the ball away.

“You look at the stats and you’d think ‘Boy, the Aggies won that game,’ but we didn’t,” Hawkins explained. “Anytime you get three turnovers and you don’t turn it over, you’re probably going to win that game. “

Hawkins stuck out his neck earlier this month when he proclaimed his 2022 team will be the best in history. The Aggies are 1-3 and likely will be 1-4 after playing Montana State in Bozeman on Saturday. Montana State is ranked fourth in the latest FCS poll and has won six in a row against UC Davis.

Saturday’s game will be on ESPNU at 7:15 p.m.

Who will be QB for UC Davis?

Miles Hastings (7) is one of six quarterbacks auditioning to start for UC Davis.

Dan Hawkins has no patience for quarterbacks who are careless with the football. His son can attest to that. Cody was the starting quarterback at Colorado in 2009 when he was benched by his father are throwing two interceptions in a 38-14 loss to Texas. Those turnovers contributed to the Longhorns outscoring the Buffaloes 35-0 in the second half.

Quarterback Miles Hastings has tested Hawkins’ patience at UC Davis. Hawkins had it easy in his first three seasons after returning to coach at his alma mater. His return coincided with quarterback Jake Maier’s transfer from Long Beach City College. Maier passed for a school-record 11,163 yards and 88 touchdowns in three seasons with the Aggies. He was the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 after leading UC Davis to a share of the conference championship and its first FCS playoff berth.

Maier’s departure after the 2019 season left the Aggies in search of a new leader behind center. The search has continued into 2022 and through two weeks of spring practice. Hawkins and his son, who is the Aggies offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, will get their last look at the six quarterback candidates in Saturday’s scrimmage until the Aggies reconvene in August to begin preparations for the Sept. 3 opener at Cal.

Hunter Rodrigues would have been the seventh candidate had he not opted to graduate early with a year of eligibility remaining. He would have had the edge in experience over the other hopefuls after starting all five games last spring and six of 12 in the fall. There was nothing to suggest Rodrigues was in jeopardy of losing the job until he sustained a concussion on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter at Weber State on Sept. 25.

Trent Tompkins

Hastings came off the bench and to the offense’s rescue by playing with the poise of a senior despite being just a freshman. He completed seven of nine passes for 50 yards as the Aggies went 56 yards in 13 plays to take a 17-14 lead with 27 seconds to play. Trent Tompkins replaced Hastings and scored on a 1-yard plunge to cap the drive that lasted more than six minutes. UC Davis safety Erron Duncan sealed the victory with an interception on the first play of Weber State’s ensuing possession.

With Rodrigues sitting out the following week, Hastings started against Idaho and the offense sputtered with 13 points in three quarters. Tompkins took a few snaps in the first three quarters before taking over in the fourth. He accounted for every yard in a 62-yard drive that he capped by lofting a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jared Harrell. Tompkins completed all three of his passes for 34 yards and added two runs for 28.

UC Davis took the lead at 27-20 with 8:05 to play when wide receiver Carson Crawford took a pitch from Tompkins and tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end McCallan Castles.

As they did against Idaho, the Aggies scored 14 points in the fourth quarter at Idaho State the following week. Those points did nothing more than make the game appear closer than it was. Rodrigues started and struggled, completing as many passes to the Bengals (two) as he did to his teammates. Idaho State turned those two interceptions into 10 points in building a 24-3 halftime lead on its way to a 27-17 victory.

The game was intriguing if for no other reason than Hawkins’ decision to go with Tompkins’ legs instead of Hastings’ arm when Rodrigues was sent to the bench after throwing his second interception on the first play of the second quarter with UC Davis trailing 14-0.

Hastings got his chance on the Aggies’ first possession in the third quarter, threw an interception on second-and-9 at Idaho State’s 16-yard line after UC Davis marched 59 yards in 12 plays and was never seen again that day. At least Rodrigues got the opportunity to throw a second interception before he got the hook from Hawkins.

Such an exit was nothing new for Hastings. The difference was his departure against Idaho State was not scripted. Hastings was told last March that he would get the third possession against Cal Poly. “Whether we went down and scored or not, (Rodrigues) was going to go back in,” recalled Hastings, who did not keep Rodrigues out for long by throwing an interception that the Mustangs returned for a touchdown and a 10-7 lead.

“Obviously, that was not how I wanted it to go,” Hastings said. “It’s football. Bad plays happen. It’s a matter of how you come back from that and shake it off.”

Hastings did get a second chance, although getting his number called with UC Davis leading 59-17 was not the best situation to show what he can do. Hastings did complete all four of his passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, but you have to wonder if Cal Poly expected UC Davis would be throwing with such a lopsided lead.

There is nothing wrong with running the ball when a game is well out of hand. Four minutes after Hastings threw his first touchdown pass with the Aggies, Tompkins scored on an 86-yard dash to make it 73-17. Tompkins was the Aggies second-leading rusher last fall with 477 yards and tied Ulonzo Gilliam for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.

One can throw (hopefully only to his teammates). The other can run. And there are four other candidates, with the latest being transfer Jack Newman from San Francisco City College. All Newman did last fall was pass for 3,583 yards and 38 touchdowns as the Rams finished 13-0. He did throw six interceptions, so the other UC Davis candidates should never count themselves out.

In the words of Lloyd Christmas, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

Receiver’s Kupp runneth over

Quincy Forte was worth a trip to San Luis Obispo in 2013 to see Eastern Washington play Cal Poly. The Vacaville High graduate started at running back for the Eagles, and former Folsom High star Dano Graves played quarterback for the Mustangs. Neither was the most captivating player in the game, however.

Cooper Kupp, an unheralded freshman with Eastern Washington, stole the show in the Eagles’ 35-22 victory. You have probably heard of him by now. Kupp had eight receptions for 139 yards and two touchdowns that day. He averaged 107 receptions and 1,616 receiving yards in each of his four college seasons. He scored 21 touchdowns as a freshman and had 73 in his career.

Cooper Kupp (photo courtesy of Eastern Washington University)

Beau Baldwin was the coach at Eastern Washington during Kupp’s time in Cheney and is now in his third year at Cal Poly after three seasons as the offensive coordinator at Cal. Baldwin is not at all surprised by what Kupp is doing these days, but he does admit it is unusual for a player who was only recruited by Eastern Washington and Idaho State to be setting the NFL on fire.

“(Kupp) was a little bit of a late bloomer. He was an underdeveloped kid,” Baldwin explained. “We had been following him since his sophomore year (at Davis High in Yakima, Wash.). He used to come to our football camps. He hadn’t sprouted yet as a junior, but he made a big jump as a senior.”

Kupp has to rank as a big reason why the Los Angeles Rams will face the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. The Rams were 0-2 in the regular season against the 49ers even though the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Kupp had 20 receptions for 240 yards and a touchdown in those two games. Those numbers contributed to Kupp becoming just the fourth player in the Super Bowl era to claim the receiving triple crown by leading the league in receptions with 145, receiving yards with 1,947 and receiving touchdowns with 16.

The other players to wear the receiving triple crown were Jerry Rice (1990), Sterling Sharpe (1992) and Steve Smith Sr. (2005). You have surely heard of them. Rice and Sharpe were first-round draft picks by the 49ers in 1985 and Green Bay Packers in 1988, respectively. Smith and Kupp were both drafted in the third round, Smith by the Carolina Panthers in 2001 and Kupp by the Rams in 2017. Smith was discounted because he is just 5-foot-9. Kupp was sold short because Eastern Washington is not a football factory even though the Eagles were the FCS national champions in 2010.

“We had a good tradition,” Baldwin said of his nine seasons at Eastern Washington. “(Kupp) added to that tradition.”

NFL scouts expressed their doubts about Kupp after he was clocked at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2017NFL Combine. Bucky Brooks, an NFL analyst, said at the time that Kupp would not amount to anything more than a third receiver with any team. Baldwin went to bat for Kupp and came out swinging.

“I got into arguments with scouts, about him,” Baldwin recalled. “You don’t put him in spikes on a track. These aren’t the Spandex Olympics. Put him in football pads and a helmet and see what he can do.”

We have.