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.

First play often goes astray

Hunter Rodrigues has figured out how to conquer his nerves as the starting quarterback for UC Davis. All the junior has to do to calm down is botch the first offensive play. He did that twice in three March victories for the Aggies, so getting his worst play out of the way right away was not catastrophic. 

Confusion on the first play March 6 at Idaho led to Rodrigues mishandling the snap and having to scramble to recover the loose ball. “We got (to the line of scrimmage) a little late and the play clock was going down,” Rodrigues said. “It was down to about 5 seconds and we were all trying to rush. Not a good start.”

Hunter Rodrigues was nearly sacked for a safety and then fumbled on the first play against Cal Poly on March 26. UC Davis went on to win 73-24.

Rodrigues bounced back to complete 23 of 29 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-17 victory. UC Davis knocked off the No. 19 team in the FCS rankings and then joined the Top 25 at No. 23.

The first play against Cal Poly on March 26 was worse. A holding penalty on the opening kickoff left UC Davis starting its first possession at the 9-yard line. Rodrigues dropped back to pass and was immediately under pressure. He retreated into the end zone and then scrambled to his left with Cal Poly’s Lance Vecchio in pursuit. Vecchio caught Rodrigues, who lost the ball on his way to the turf.

Rodrigues lost the ball because he was trying to flip it forward in hopes of the play being ruled an incomplete pass. “No (receiver) was open, so I was rolling out trying to find someone,” Rodrigues said. “I noticed I was in the end zone and I didn’t want to take a safety. I should have thrown it away sooner.

“Yeah, another not a good start.”

The Mustangs recovered the fumble, but the Aggies defense bailed out Rodrigues by limiting Cal Poly to a field goal. The turnover by Rodriguez was long forgotten by halftime, when UC Davis led 49-10 on its way to a 73-24 victory. UC Davis was to play Cal Poly again on April 10, but Cal Poly  has bowed out.

That leaves UC Davis (3-1) with one more game this spring. The Aggies, who are No. 11 in the FCS rankings, will host No. 9 Eastern Washington (3-1) on Saturday with the winner likely receiving an at-large berth to the 16-team FCS playoffs. Eleven conference champions will receive automatic berths, leaving just five at-large bids.

Weber State (3-0), which is ranked No 3, will likely receive the Big Sky’s automatic bid when the FCS playoff field is announced April 18. The Wildcats’ remaining games are against two 1-3 teams in Southern Utah and Idaho State. Weber State beat UC Davis 18-13 on March 13 and will not play Eastern Washington.

Rodrigues welcomes the challenge of facing Eastern Washington with the opportunity to lead the Aggies to their first win against the Eagles in nine meetings. The Whitney High School (Rocklin) graduate arrived at UC Davis from American River College in 2018, when the Aggies lost 59-20 to the Eagles in the regular season and 34-29 in the FCS quarterfinals. 

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 2018, but he was not at his best against Eastern Washington. He threw two interceptions in each loss. To put that in perspective, he was picked off just six times in the other 11 games. When asked about Maier’s performances against the Eagles, Rodrigues looked beyond the errant passes to see what made Maier so successful.

“It was the true grit that you have to have to play this position,” Rodrigues said. “You have to put your heart and should into this position in order to be successful. It meant everything to (Maier). It means everything to me to play at my best when the best is needed.”

Rodrigues will have to be at his best against Eastern Washington – except for the first play. That is the one he can afford to botch because “it takes away any nerves or butterflies you might have.” 

He would know.Edit

Hornets flip script on Aggies

UC Davis linebacker Nick Eaton resorted to grabbing Kevin Thomson’s towel in hopes of stopping Sacramento State’s quarterback in the 66th annual Causeway Classic on Nov. 23. Thomson and the Hornets were not to be denied, erasing a 14-point deficit to beat the Aggies 27-17 and earn a share of the Big Sky Conference championship in Troy Taylor’s first season at the helm. Sacramento State will host an FCS playoff game for the first time Dec. 7 against Austin Peay.

NCAA Tournament to be a kick

Andy Velasquez (14) is mobbed by his teammates after scoring in the 55th minute Nov. 15 as UC Davis defeated UC Santa Barbara 2-0 in the championship game of the Big West Conference tournament in Davis. With the title, the Aggies advance to the NCAA Tournament and will host Louisville at 1 p.m. Sunday.