Playing ends, coaching begins

Kooper Richardson had the option in 2021 of remaining at UC Davis as a graduate student or entering the transfer portal. The offensive tackle would have probably remained with the Aggies if he could have a position to call his own, but he felt as if he was no longer wanted.

The first indication of that came after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season. Five games in the spring of 2021 were compensation without costing the players a year of eligibility. Those games cost Richardson , however, as he went from starting 24 games in 2018-19 to having to share playing time.

Kooper Richarson (77) started his college career at UC Davis, finished it in 2021 at Sacramento State and was recently hired as a graduate assistant at Boise State.

Tim Keane might have stood a chance of talking Richardson into staying, but the offensive line coach left UC Davis after the 2019 season to take the same position at Boise State. Richardson will now work alongside Keane in the fall after joining the Broncos as a graduate assistant.

Richardson jumped to Sacramento State after leaving UC Davis to join his father Kris and brother Kaden. Kris might have the longest title of any college coach – assistant head coach, run game coordinator and offensive line coach. He also coached his sons at Folsom High.

Joining the rival Hornets might have also been Richardson’s way of sticking it to UC Davis after being discarded like an old couch. He started all 11 games at right tackle in 2021 for Sacramento State, which finished 8-0 in the Big Sky Conference and advanced to the FCS playoffs.

Mike Cody became the offensive line coach at UC Davis after Keane departed and was promoted to offensive coordinator last season. New head coach Tim Plough will call plays as he did in 2016-19 as the Aggies offensive coordinator, so Cody will return to coaching the offensive line.

Like Keane, Plough left UC Davis in 2019 to became offensive coordinator at Boise State. Plough did not last two seasons in Boise. He was fired in 2022 after a 27-10 loss to UTEP left the Broncos with a 2-2 record. The loss was Boise State’s first in seven meetings with UTEP since 2000.

Plough found a new job in 2023 as the tight ends coach at Cal and was offered a promotion to offensive coordinator after the season. The opportunity to return to UC Davis, his alma mater, following Dan Hawkins’ retirement was an offer he simply could not refuse.

Three’s company at Sac State

Carson Camp started the 2023 season at quarterback for Sacramento State and finished it Saturday in a stadium he once called home. The junior transfer from South Dakota returned to Grand Forks for a second-round FCS playoff game and did all he could to spark the Hornets, but his effort was not enough in a 34-24 loss to his former team.

Camp made just his fourth appearance of the season after Kaiden Bennett was injured and exited in the second quarter. Turnabout must be fair play because Bennett replaced Camp in the second quarter of the Aug. 31 opener at Nicholls State. Camp was pulled after struggling in his debut with the Hornets and Bennett came to the rescue.

Carson Camp made a case to start in 2024 with a solid relief effort in Sacramento State’s loss to South Dakota on Saturday.

Bennett made a case to become the starter by throwing for two touchdowns and running for a third in a 38-24 victory. His first start came a week later in a 34-6 win over Texas A&M-Commerce and Bennett again delivered, throwing for 176 yards and rushing for 101. His two touchdown runs propelled the Hornets to a 24-0 lead at halftime.

His second start was even better. Bennett threw for 279 yards and ran for 100 in a 30-23 victory at Stanford. His footwork went beyond his 13 carries. Bennett scrambled out of a sack and flipped a pass to running back Marcus Fulcher, who did the rest for a 49-yard touchdown with 1:32 to play.

The spotlight shifted to Carson Conklin, however, after the true freshman relieved Bennett in a 51-16 victory at Idaho State on Oct. 28. Conklin threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns to put himself in line for more playing time. Conklin made his first start Nov. 11 in a 41-30 win over Cal Poly and rewarded the coaches for putting their faith in him.

Some folks will say the Hornets were not risking that much by going with Conklin because the Mustangs were 1-5 in the Big Sky Conference. The game was much closer than expected, so Conklin made the difference by passing for 313 yards and three touchdowns.

Conklin did not come close to those numbers against UC Davis in the Causeway Classic on Nov. 18. He got the hook at halftime with the Aggies leading 17-0 after going 13-of-25 for 137 yards. Bennett completed 19 of 28 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns in the second half as the Hornets salvaged a smidgen of pride.

Bennett was incredible in a 42-35 win at North Dakota in the first round of the playoffs, accounting for three touchdowns with 333 yards of total offense. His injury Saturday might have had a silver lining because the offense was in need of a jump-start. The first four possessions ended in two punts, an interception and a fumble that South Dakota returned for a touchdown to take a 17-0 lead.

Camp provided it on the ensuing possession by throwing for 36 yards and running for 24 as the Hornets drove 75 yards to score their first touchdown with 9:31 to play in the second quarter. His effort did not rescue the Hornets, but it makes for quite a quarterback battle when the Hornets reconvene to prepare for the 2024 season.

The Hornets essentially had two starting quarterbacks the past two seasons with Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara. Now let’s see if they can juggle three.

Hornets try to stretch season

Sacramento State has not reached the end of the road, but the Hornets are facing a familiar pothole. Saturday’s 42-35 victory at North Dakota earned the Hornets a second game in the FCS playoffs for the third time since 2019, but they have yet to play a third game.

The Hornets will return to the Midwest for that second game this week and face third-seeded South Dakota in Vermillion. The Coyotes are 9-2 and rallied at home to beat North Dakota 14-10 on Nov. 11. Sacramento State and South Dakota will meet for the first time.

This season has not been like the past two for the Hornets. They brought an eight-game winning streak in the 2021 playoffs to earn a first-round bye and then lost to South Dakota State. They were 12-0 last year after a first-round win over Richmond and then lost 66-63 to Incarnate Word. The Hornets and Cardinals combined for 57 points in the fourth quarter.

Kaiden Bennett threw for 207 yards and rushed for 126 on Saturday to propel the Hornets to a 42-35 victory at North Dakota.

Sacramento State was lucky just to make the 24-team playoffs this season, much less receive a bye or a home game, after going 7-4 in the regular season and losing 31-21 to UC Davis in the Causeway Classic. That left the Hornets with a 1,743-mile trip to Grand Forks.

Finding their way to the Alterus Center was far easier than trying to figure out who would start at quarterback against the Fighting Hawks. Freshman Carson Conklin started the previous two games, but he was pulled at halftime against UC Davis with a 17-0 deficit.

Junior Kaiden Bennett threw three touchdown passes in the second half, the third making it 24-14 with 5:45 to play. The Hornets gambled on their next possession by going for it on fourth-and-12 at their 18-yard line, but Bennett’s pass intended for wide receiver Carlos Hill fell incomplete.

Lan Larison scored on a 12-yard run with 3:30 remaining for his fourth touchdown of the day to put the game away. The Aggies snapped a three-game losing streak against the Hornets.

Bennett’s start Saturday was his ninth of the season and he made the most of it. The Folsom High School graduate passed for 207 yards, ran for 126 and accounted for three touchdowns. The third was a 4-yard scamper for the go-ahead touchdown with 4:45 to go.

Tight end Marshel Martin IV wrapped his arms around Bennett at the 2-yard line and pulled him into the end zone. Bennett accounted for 63 of 75 yards during the seven-play drive by completing all of his three passes for 40 yards and gaining 23 on three carries.

Bennett has run for 100 or more yards in three games this season. He surpassed senior Marcus Fulcher on Saturday for the team lead in rushing yards with 578. Fulcher has 527.

Days numbered for ex-Viking

This is not how Armon Bailey envisioned his football career at Sacramento State coming to an end. The 2018 Vanden High School graduate expected the Hornets to beat UC Davis in the Causeway Classic, win the Big Sky Conference and host an FCS playoff game.

Bailey had every reason to believe the Hornets could achieve all three. Sacramento State beat UC Davis and won or shared the Big Sky championship in each of the past three seasons. And the Hornets began each of their three playoff appearances with a home game.

UC Davis running back Lan Larison could not get away from Sacramento State’s Armon Bailey on this play in the Causeway Classic.

Two out of three would have been fine with Bailey. One out of three would have been acceptable – especially if that one was another victory over the Aggies. Going 0-3 left the linebacker to wonder how a season with so much promise fell short of his expectations.

At least the Hornets are in the playoffs. Sacramento will face North Dakota in Grand Forks on Saturday. The Hornets are 2-4 against the Fighting Hawks, but Sacramento State won in each of its past two visits, most recently in 2017. Bailey had seven tackles when the Hornets lost 41-15 at home to North Dakota in 2018.

UC Davis was left out of the playoffs despite a 31-21 win over Sacramento State last week to finish 5-3 in the Big Sky. The Hornets were 4-4 and would have also been snubbed if not for their 30-23 win against their former coach, Troy Taylor, at Stanford on Sept. 16.

Sacramento State also received credit for three of its four Big Sky losses coming against ranked FCS teams – Montana, Idaho and Montana State. UC Davis did not play Montana State or Idaho. The Aggies lost to Montana, Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington.

Armon Bailey leads the Hornets in tackles with 82 as a senior.

Falling to 0-11 against Eastern Washington cost UC Davis after the Eagles finished 3-5. The Aggies would not have merited any consideration if they had lost to Sacramento State. Bailey did all he could to prevent that by leading the Hornets in tackles with nine.

“For me personally, it really sucked. I didn’t want to go out on that kind of note,” said Bailey, who had eight or more tackles in seven games this season. Bailey leads the Hornets in tackles for the second consecutive year with 82. He had 88 as a junior in 2022.

Marte Mapu finished second to Bailey in tackles last season with 76. Mapu was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and the New England Patriots selected him in the third round of the 2023 NFL draft. He now starts at linebacker for the Patriots.

The 23-year-old Bailey believes Mapu has paved a path for other Hornets to have an opportunity to play in the NFL. One such player for the 2024 draft is Bailey, who is a two-time All-Big Sky selection after missing a total of 13 games in 2019 and 2021 with injuries.

As a “humble kid,” Bailey will not come out and say he believes he deserves a shot. As a “resilient guy,” he would welcome the challenge of proving he can compete against the elite.

“I feel like it’s right around the corner,” said Bailey, who has earned a degree in criminal justice and is thinking of applying for law school. “Everything is starting to fall into place.”

Playing it safe can be risky

Hunter Ridley kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired in the first half Nov. 4 to give UC Davis a 17-7 lead against Portland State. The Aggies launched the 13-play, 75-yard drive with 5:26 to go and had three timeouts, so a touchdown was hardly out of question.

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins answered that question, however, after running back Lan Larison was stopped for a 3-yard loss on first down at the Aggies’ 33-yard line. Hawkins let 27 seconds tick away by not calling a timeout as soon as Larison hit the synthetic turf.

Junior Trent Tompkins leads UC Davis in receiving yards and is second in rushing.

By the time Hawkins called his first timeout with 2 seconds remaining, UC Davis had wasted nearly 3 minutes by not stopping the clock. Portland State tied the score with 10 points in the third quarter when UC Davis could have entered the fourth with a lead.

All of that was easy to dismiss after UC Davis won 37-23. Hawkins got away with playing it safe in a game the Aggies had to win to stand any chance of making the FCS playoffs. UC Davis kept its postseason hopes alive last Saturday with a 21-14 victory at Idaho State.

Sacramento State, Montana, Montana State and Idaho are assured of representing the Big Sky Conference in the playoffs by having seven victories and being ranked in the FCS Top 25. UC Davis is 6-4 and unranked, so the Aggies have one objective Saturday afternoon.

Sacramento State’s Josh Cashiola sacks Portland State’s Sam Huard.

UC Davis will have to snap a three-game losing streak against Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic to have any shot of making the 24-team playoffs. With so much on the line for the Aggies, Hawkins cannot afford to play it safe as he did with Portland State.

Doing so against the Hornets last season did not work. One example was in the second quarter after a punt pinned the Aggies as their 14-yard line. A 1-yard run, a 2-yard pass and an incompletion forced a punt that gave the ball to the Hornets at the 50. Two passes for 31 yards led to a 19-yard touchdown run by Asher O’Hara to give the Hornets a 17-3 lead. Sacramento State never trailed in a 27-21 win.

In 2021, UC Davis was shut out in the first three quarters of a 27-7 loss. The Aggies scored first in 2019 on Jake Maier’s 76-yard touchdown pass to Kris Vaughn and took a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter. Kevin Thomson rallied the Hornets with a 51-yard touchdown pass to freshman Marshel Martin IV and a 33-yard scoring run with 3:04 to play.

UC Davis will face Martin, who hails from St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo, for the last time on Saturday. The senior had a 39-yard touchdown reception last Saturday in a 41-30 victory over Cal Poly. The score was his second of the season. Martin had 12 in 2022.

Hornets can slow Aggies’ roll

Troy Taylor certainly had a hand in Sacramento State flipping the script against UC Davis in the Causeway Classic. The Hornets are 3-0 against the Aggies since 2019, when Taylor returned home to resurrect a program that had been 4-15 in the rivalry since 2000.

Credit should also go to Andy Thompson, who was hired by Taylor as the defensive coordinator and continues to direct the defense in his first season as head coach. He knows what it takes to stop the Aggies and will likely stick with that strategy on Saturday.

Ulonzo Gilliam averaged 42 rushing yards in his last three games against Sacramento State.

Forcing UC Davis to abandon its running game will again be the key for Sacramento State. The Aggies must win to stand any chance of making the FCS playoffs and a one-dimensional offense is not going to bolster their chances of doing so.

UC Davis rushed for more than 80 yards just once in its past three meetings with Sacramento State. That one time was last Nov. 19, when the Aggies had 113 yards on the ground in a 27-21 loss. They averaged 203 yards in their other 10 games.

Sacramento State limited UC Davis to 73 rushing yards in 2021 and 63 in 2019. The Hornets opted not to play in the spring of 2021 after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season. UC Davis managed just one rushing touchdown in losing the past three meetings.

Ulonzo Gilliam left UC Davis after last season as the program’s all-time leader in rushing yards (4,617), touchdowns (51) and 100-yard games (22). He reached the century mark just once against Sacramento State, gaining 138 in the Aggies’ 56-13 victory in 2018.

That was the year when UC Davis shared the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time. That was also a year before Taylor and Thompson were hired at Sacramento State to breathe new life into a morbid program.

Gilliam’s 138 yards in 2018 were 10 more than his total in his last three shots at Sacramento State. He managed just 61 yards in a 27-17 loss four years ago, 17 in a 27-7 loss in 2021 and 50 in a 27-21 loss in 2022. At least he reached the end zone in last year’s game.

Lan Larison

Lan Larison has been a frequent visitor to the end zone for UC Davis in 2023. And the junior could be just what the Aggies need to turn the Causeway Classic tide in their favor after being named Monday as the Big Sky Co-Offensive Player of the Week.

Larison rushed for 264 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-14 win at Idaho State. The Idaho native dashed 23 yards for the go-ahead score with 2:05 to play in a do-or-die game. Larison rushed for 255 yards against Eastern Washington on Sept. 23, but he sustained a knee injury in the second half and missed three games.

UC Davis faces another must-win game on Saturday against Sacramento State, which climbed to No. 10 in the FCS rankings this week. The Aggies and Hornets are both 4-3 in the Big Sky, but Sacramento State has the magic playoff number with seven victories.

Sacramento State will be joined by Montana (9-1), Montana State (8-2) and Idaho (7-3) in the 24-team playoffs. UC Davis could qualify with six wins, but a seventh would be nice.

The latest playoff projections by the College Sports Journal have UC Davis at No. 17 against No. 16 Central Arkansas and Sacramento State at No. 14 against No. 19 Holy Cross. That would give the Hornets a home playoff game for the third time in the past three full seasons.

Father knows best? We’ll see

Cody Hawkins had it made at UC Davis. Job security would be his as long as his father Dan was the head honcho. Hawkins joined his father’s staff in 2017 as a volunteer assistant to help out with the wide receivers, so no one could accuse his father of favoritism.

That changed in 2019 when Hawkins was named assistant director of football operations and recruiting coordinator – a job apparently intended for him when his father created it. Hawkins was promoted again in 2020 when he was named offensive coordinator.

Cody Hawkins wore orange as offensive coordinator at UC Davis so the players could easily spot him on the sideline. He now wears it as head coach at Idaho State.

How could Hawkins have asked for anything more at the ripe age of 32? He was directing an offense featuring players he had talked into playing at UC Davis. The Aggies went from averaging 28.3 points per game in his first season of calling plays to 35.9 in 2022.

UC Davis is averaging just 25.7 points per game this season, but Hawkins is not to blame. He left UC Davis last December to become Idaho State’s head coach. The Bengals are averaging 27.7 points a game and led all FCS teams in passing yards per game at 338.2.

Hawkins inherited a team that went 1-7 in the Big Sky Conference and 1-10 overall in 2022. Idaho State is 3-3 in the Big Sky this season. So is UC Davis, which is 5-4 overall and will have to win its final two games to stand any chance of earning a spot in the FCS playoffs.

That means Hawkins can knock his father’s team out of contention when Idaho State and UC Davis tangle Saturday in Pocatello. The Bengals are 1-6 against the Aggies, but Idaho State has a 42-41 win over Eastern Washington on Oct. 14 in its favor. UC Davis lost 27-24 to Eastern Washington on Sept. 23, leaving the Aggies at 0-11 against the Eagles.

Eastern Washington had won 12 in a row against Idaho State before squandering a 27-point lead Oct. 14. The Bengals trailed 41-14 with 1:48 to go in the third quarter, then scored 62 seconds later and three times in the fourth quarter to pull off an improbable victory.

Sacramento State is also 3-3 in the Big Sky, but the Hornets control their destiny because they are 6-3 overall and can virtually clinch a playoff berth Saturday at home by beating 1-5 Cal Poly. The Mustangs lost 48-13 to Eastern Washington in Cheney last Saturday.

Big Sky race off to fast start

Vanden is the only MEL team to come within 20 points of Vacaville in three of the past four years.  The Vikings lost 35-17 to the Bulldogs two years ago, their last loss on their way to the state 3-AA championship.

Will C. Wood lost 34-31 to Vacaville in 2018, three years after the Wildcats humbled the Bulldogs in a 49-26 victory. The Bulldogs’ last MEL loss was 28-21 to Napa in 2016. Vacaville has won 27 in a row since then.

One week was all it took for the Big Sky Conference football season to be blown wide open. Three of the top four teams in the coaches’ preseason poll lost Saturday, proving again that predicting the order of finish before the first conference games are played is nothing more than premature propaganda.

Those three losses shuffled the FCS rankings. Idaho climbed from No. 10 to No. 6 by knocking off No. 4 Sacramento State 36-27.  The Hornets dropped to No. 9 with their first regular-season loss since 2021.

UC Davis tight end Josh Gale (81) keeps a grip on the ball as he celebrates with Ian Simpson (82) and Jordan Ford after his 6-yard touchdown reception last Saturday.

The Vandals enjoyed a 17-minute advantage in time of possession and contained Kaiden Bennett. The Hornets quarterback was held to 17 yards on 10 carries after running for 100 in each of Sacramento State’s past two games.

Idaho was predicted to finish fifth by the coaches and second in the media poll, so Big Sky coaches apparently do not know it all.  

Sacramento State was predicted to finish third. UC Davis was second, but the Aggies lost 27-24 to Eastern Washington to fall to 0-11 against the Eagles. UC Davis dropped from No. 15 to No. 20 in the rankings.

UC Davis maintained a 24-20 lead when the defense stopped Eastern Washington on fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line with 3:08 to play in the third quarter. That forced the offense to take possession with bad field position.

Having to punt from the 3 when three plays produced nothing proved costly for UC Davis. Eastern Washington took possession at its 42 and marched 58 yards in nine plays to score the go-ahead touchdown.

Lan Larison rushed for 201 yards in the first half, including a 78-yard touchdown dash. The junior carried the Aggies to a touchdown on their first possession of the second half with nine carries for 54 yards. Miles Hastings capped the 12-play 75-yard drive with a 4-yard scoring pass to Trent Tompkins. 

That was the last series of the night for Larison, however. He sustained an undisclosed injury and could be out for “some time,” said Skip Powers, assistant director of athletics communications at UC Davis.

Larison’s departure allowed Vacaville High School graduate Darian Leon-Guerrero to get one carry and catch a 14-yard pass.

Hastings completed a season-high 75 percent (24 of 32) of his passes, but the junior averaged a 6.8 yards per completion – his lowest average in a game this season when he has completed 20 or more passes. Hastings had just one game last season in which he averaged fewer than 7 yards per completion.

UC Davis had a chance to tie it with 3:20 to play, but Hunter Ridley’s field-goal attempt from 31 yards was blocked. The sophomore had been 6-for-6 this season after a 41-yard field goal in the first quarter.

Saturday’s game at Cal Poly will be an opportunity for UC Davis to regain momentum. The Aggies have a six-game winning streak against the Mustangs and scored more than 40 points in three of those victories. 

Eastern Washington cracked into the rankings at No. 25 with the victory. The Eagles will host Idaho on Saturday.

Weber State was predicted to finish fourth by the coaches, but the Wildcats were whipped 40-0 at home by Montana State. The third-ranked Bobcats were predicted to finish first in the coaches and media polls. Weber State fell from No. 8 to No. 14 in the rankings.

Montana dropped from No. 11 to No. 16 in the rankings with a 28-14 loss at Northern Arizona. The Grizzlies were predicted to finish third in the media poll and sixth by the coaches. The victory was the first of the season for the Lumberjacks and their first in 15 games against a ranked opponent since 2018. 

The Grizzlies managed just 18 rushing yards in their first loss of the season. That was their lowest total since being held to 17 yards on the ground in a 17-10 loss to Weber State in 2019. 

Northern Arizona was predicted to finish eighth in the media poll and ninth by the coaches. The Lumberjacks will face another ranked team on Saturday when they travel to Sacramento State for a 6 p.m. game. 

Catching on to blocking

Devin Gandy does not earn his keep at Sacramento State by blocking. It might be mentioned in the fine print of the job description for a wide receiver, but the Hornets rely on Gandy for his sure hands and game-breaking speed.

Both attributes were evident last Saturday night at Stanford in Sacramento State’s 30-23 victory. Gandy caught a career-high five passes for 64 yards, including a 39-yarder on fourth-and-3 at the Stanford 45-yard line in the third quarter.

Sophomore Devin Gandy has come back from knee surgery to give the Hornets a deep threat at wide receiver this season.

That gave the Hornets a first-and-goal at the 6, but the drive ended when Kaiden Bennett threw an interception. The turnover was not costly because Stanford’s ensuing possession also ended with an interception.

Each team got two field goals after that with Zach Schreiber’s 44-yarder pulling Sacramento State into a 23-all tie with 4:08 to play. The Hornets defense then stuffed the Cardinal to force a punt at the Stanford 19.

Bennett gained 4 yards on first down, but he followed with an incomplete pass to leave the Hornets with third-and-6 at the Stanford 49. Sacramento State was a play away from wasting its best drive start of the night.

The third-down play did not go according to offensive coordinator Bobby Fresques’ plan. Bennett dropped back to pass and noticed tight end Marshall Martin stayed put to block instead of taking off into his route. 

Marcus Fulcher stayed in the backfield to protect Bennett, but the running back missed a block on blitzing linebacker Gaethan Bernadel. Bennett scrambled to his right in a desperate search for an open receiver. 

The only available target turned out to be Fulcher, who had the good sense to flare out to the right. Bennett was nearly sacked as Bernadel pulled him down from behind when he managed to flip the ball to Fulcher.

Gandy was running a deep route on the right, but the sophomore cut it off after looking back to see Bennett was in trouble. After Fulcher caught the pass and found room to run, Gandy transformed into a blocker.

Safety Alaka’i Gilman was the last Stanford player with a chance to stop Fulcher from reaching the end zone. Gandy made sure that would not happen by cutting off Gilman and knocking him out of Fulcher’s way. 

Gilman had a 24-pound advantage on the 170-pound Gandy, but Gandy was prepared to confront the challenge.

Devin Gandy

“We’ve had a big emphasis on blocking the last couple of weeks, especially against Stanford,” said Gandy, who attended Silverado High School in Victorville. “They’re bigger guys because they play in the Pac-12.”

Sacramento State was not intimidated by Stanford’s size in its fourth win against an FBS team since 2011. Stanford was Sacramento State’s third Pac-12 victim, following Oregon State (2011) and Colorado (2012). The fourth victory came against Colorado State last season

By the time the Hornets returned to Sacramento, they were already looking ahead to Saturday’s game at Idaho. The game is one of two Big Sky Conference openers featuring two ranked teams. Sacramento is No. 4 and Idaho No. 7 in the latest FCS poll. No. 3 Montana State will travel to No. 8 Weber State.

Gandy did not play last October when the Hornets beat the Vandals 31-24. Sacramento State blew a 17-point lead but came back to win when quarterback Asher O’Hara’ scored on a 2-yard run with 1:48 to play.

Surgery on his left knee forced Gandy to miss the 2022 regular season, but he played in the two FCS playoff games. He could have returned sooner, but playing in five games would have cost him a year of eligibility. 

The Hornets wanted to have Gandy available in case they had four playoff games, the maximum for his participation without losing a year of eligibility. He marked his return to action with three receptions for 60 yards in the 38-31 playoff victory against Richmond.

His first catch was for 39 yards and erased any doubts about his knee, especially on a rain-soaked synthetic field.

“It was the best feeling because I put in the work to make it back. It was a big play and they knew they could rely on me,” said Gandy, who probably had a better feeling after the surprising victory against Stanford.

Aggies are 0-10 against Eagles

Eric Barriere is gone, so UC Davis might have a fighting chance of beating Eastern Washington on Saturday night in Davis. And a win would be a first for the Aggies, who are 0-10 all-time against the Eagles and can blame Barriere for four of those losses because the quarterback made a difference in each of those four games.

In those four games, Barriere completed 101 of 150 passes for 1,324 yards and 10 touchdowns. He threw two interceptions and was sacked six times, including five in the Eagles’ 34-29 victory in the 2018 FCS playoffs. UC Davis, Eastern Washington and Weber State shared the Big Sky Conference championship five years ago.

Eastern Washington’s Eric Barriere had his way with UC Davis, passing for 1,324 yards and 10 touchdowns in four victories.

The five-point loss was the closest the Aggies came to beating Berriere and the Eagles. The playoff game came four weeks after UC Davis traveled to Cheney and was knocked out cold in a 59-20 victory. At least the Eagles were nice enough to shovel the snow from the red turf and provide sideline heaters for the Aggies.

Barriere threw for 285 yards and one touchdown, but the Eagles did not need anything more from him because they rushed for 370 yards and six touchdowns. Eastern Washington ran 94 offensive plays to 50 for UC Davis and had a 37:15-22:45 edge in time of possession. A 69-yard touchdown run by Tehran Thomas with 22 seconds to play in the second quarter left UC Davis trailing 21-17 at halftime.

Eastern Washington scored twice in the first seven minutes of the third quarter to blow the game open. Barriere’s touchdown pass came with 41 seconds remaining in the game, adding insult to injury for UC Davis. Why Barriere was still in the game with the Eagles leading by 32 points in the fourth quarter is anyone’s guess.

In the playoff rematch, UC Davis was 73 seconds away from its first victory against Eastern Washington after Jake Maier’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Ulonzo Gilliam. The Aggies passed on an extra-point attempt to tie the game and took the lead when Maier connected with Namane Modise for the two-point conversion.

Eastern Washington needed just 47 seconds to regain the lead. Berriere had a 29-yard run and then threw an 11-yard pass to Nsimba Webster. Focusing on Barriere cost the Aggies when Sam McPherson broke loose for a 35-yard touchdown run.

The next meeting came in April 2021 after the spread of COVID-19 led to the 2020 season being reduced to a five-game schedule in the spring. Berriere was 30-of-41 for 393 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his scoring passes came in the first half as the Eagles jumped out to a 16-0 lead on their way to a 32-22 victory.

It was more of the same seven months later when the teams met in Davis. Barriere was 34-of-54 for 411 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-20 victory. The Aggies finished the season with a three-game losing streak, falling 27-7 to Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic and 54-26 at South Dakota State in the playoffs.

Eastern Washington’s quarterback on Saturday will be redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas, who has thrown for 849 yards and five touchdowns in three games. The Eagles are 1-2 with losses to No. 2-ranked North Dakota State and Fresno State in double overtime. The Aggies are 2-1 and ranked 15th with their only loss coming at Oregon State, which is ranked 14th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Six Big Sky teams are ranked in the FCS coaches poll and there will be two battles of ranked teams on Saturday in the first week of the conference season. Third-ranked Montana State will travel to No. 8 Weber State and No. 4 Sacramento State will pay a visit No. 10 Idaho. Montana is No. 11 and will travel to Northern Arizona.