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.

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.