Plenty on line in Causeway

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Miles Hastings will start at quarterback for UC Davis in the Causeway Classic.

Much more than bragging rights will be at stake Saturday when UC Davis hosts Sacramento State in the 67th edition of the Causeway Classic. This will be the third consecutive meeting of the rivals with a piece of the Big Sky Conference championship on the line. The Aggies shared the title in 2018, the Hornets did the same two years ago and Sacramento State can claim the crown outright Saturday with a victory and a Montana State loss to Montana.

Montana State kicks off two hours before the Causeway Classic beings at 1 p.m., so the Hornets should know by halftime if they have a chance to have the title all to themselves. The Causeway Classic is hardly a road game for the visiting team, but Sacramento State has not lost a Big Sky game away from Hornet Stadium since Troy Taylor signed a seven-year contract to become the Hornets coach in 2019. The Hornets are 7-0 on the Big Sky road with one of their victories just so happening to come at Montana State in 2019

Sacramento State is riding a seven-game winning streak, its longest in 55 years, with all of those victories coming against Big Sky opponents. The Hornets dropped two of their three nonconference games, including a 42-30 loss at Cal on Sept. 18. Sacramento State also lost to Northern Iowa, which at the time was ranked 15th in the FCS Top 25. The Panthers fell out of the rankings this week but could be one of 13 teams to receive at-large berths to the FCS playoffs. The 24-team bracket will be announced at 9:30 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.

UC Davis (5-2 Big Sky, 8-2 overall) fell four spots to No. 10 in the rankings after losing 38-20 to Eastern Washington last Saturday. A Top 10 spot should be enough to get the Aggies an at-large berth into the playoffs regardles of Saturday’s outcome. Sacramento State (7-0, 8-2) is No. 11 and will be the Big Sky’s automatic qualifier with a victory and a Montana State loss. If both the Hornets and Bobcats lose, Sacramento State will receive the automatic bid by virtue of its 28-21 victory Oct. 16 at Montana, which at the time was ranked No. 5. The Grizzlies are currently No. 7, two spots below Eastern Washington.

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Eric Barriere

The Big Sky should have five teams in the playoffs and there is a good chance two of them will meet at some point. That happened in 2019 with Weber State defeating Montana in the quarterfinals. Sacramento State was seeded fourth two years ago, drew a first-round bye and then lost to Austin Peay. UC Davis and Eastern Washington met in the second round in 2018, four weeks after the Aggies lost 59-20 to the Eagles on Nov. 10 in Cheney. UC Davis returned to Cheney for the playoff rematch and lost 34-29 when Eastern Washington’s Sam McPherson scored on a 35-yard run with 26 seconds to play.

Eastern Washington has continued to have its way with UC Davis. Last Saturday’s victory was the Eagles’ 10th in as many meetings with the Aggies. Quarterback Eric Barriere has personally seen to maintaining the Eagles’ superiority. In four games against UC Davis, Barriere has thrown for 1,324 yards and 10 touchdowns. The redshirt senior was at it again last Saturday in Davis by throwing for 411 yards and three touchdowns without being sacked. That was a standard performance for Barriere, who passed for 600 yards and seven touchdowns in the Eagles’ 71-21 victory over Idaho on Oct. 16.

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins tipped his figurative cap to Barriere last Saturday. “He’s a generational talent. He could play at any level and play well,” Hawkins said. “As I told our team and him, I have had the fortune or misfortune of playing against a number of Heisman Trophy winners and (Heisman) finalists. (Barriere is) as dominant a player as anyone I’ve played against. You’re not going to shut him down. You just try to limit what he can do.”

Wrestling with Sacramento State’s tag team of quarterbacks should prove much easier for UC Davis than trying to take down Barriere. Taylor plays to the respective strengths of Jake Dunniway (2,051 yards passing and 11 touchdowns) and Asher O’Hara (a team-high 593 yards rushing and eight touchdowns).

Hawkins has done the same at UC Davis with redshirt freshmen Miles Hastings (920 yards passing and six touchdowns) and Trent Tompkins (420 yards rushing and six touchdowns) taking turns. Hunter Rodrigues started the first four games this season after starting all five games last spring. The junior has not been the same since sustaining a concussion at Weber State on Sept. 25. He missed the Idaho game and was benched after tossing two interceptions in the first half of a 27-17 loss at Idaho State on Oct. 9.

Two more interceptions against Northern Colorado on Oct. 16 convinced Hawkins to go with Hastings, who has started the past three games. Hawkins has not lost faith in Rodrigues even thought Rodrigues has lost the starting job. “I think for a variety of reasons he was pressing,” Hawkins said. “I felt bad because it had to be hard for him. But as my dad told me a long time ago, life is not fair and either is football. Humility before honor – I get it.”

To QB or not QB for UC Davis

Flipping a coin to decide who should play quarterback would not do UC Davis much good. A coin has only two sides and three players have taken snaps for the Aggies this season. Such depth is usually considered to be a luxury, but at UC Davis it could mean none of the three has separated from the pack.

Hunter Rodrigues has started six games for the 6-1 Aggies, but throwing four interceptions in the past two games has to have coach Dan Hawkins wondering whether he can stick with the junior. Rodrigues has not been the same since sustaining a concussion in a 17-14 victory at Weber State on Sept. 25.

Trent Tompkins and the 6-1 Aggies will pay a visit to Cal Poly on Saturday.

For example, take the first series last Saturday against Northern Colorado. Rodrigues completed his first two passes for 8 yards and was replaced by Trent Tompkins on fourth-and-1 at the Northern Colorado 49. Tompkins ran for 4 yards to give the Aggies a first down at the 45. That was as far as they would go.

Rodrigues wasted no time in seeing to that by bouncing a pass to Carson Crawford on first down and throwing behind C.J. Hutton on second down after scrambling out of the pocket. That was nothing compared with what Rodrigues did – or attempted to do – on third down.

Northern Colorado unleashed cornerback Uryan Hudson on a blitz and he forced Rodrigues to flee – and retreat toward Woodland. When Rodrigues was caught 19 yards later at the UC Davis 36, he chucked the ball into the air with enough hang time for the play to be easily mistaken for a punt. Northern Colorado’s Jace Bobo could have signaled for a fair catch when he intercepted Rodrigues’ ill-advised and desperate throw at the original line of scrimmage.

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins does not tolerate turnovers. Rodrigues was pulled after throwing two interceptions in the first half at Idaho State on Oct. 9. The second came after Idaho State’s Benjami Omayebu fumbled on a punt return and Chris Venable recovered for UC Davis at the Idaho State 21. The Aggies trailed the Bengals 14-0 at the time. And Idaho State was 0-4 at the time.

Not only was Rodrigues picked off, but Idaho State’s Jayden Dawson added insult to injury by returning the interception 61 yards to the UC Davis 24. David Allish’s 23-yard field goal extended Idaho State’s lead to 17-0 and prompted Hawkins to replace Rodrigues with Tompkins in the second quarter.

That was Rodrigues’ first game since his concussion. He missed the 27-20 victory over Idaho on Oct. 2. Getting the hook against Idaho State led to speculation that he was not right in the head. Hawkins had his fair share of doubts.

Hawkins admitted to wondering, “Is (Rodrigues) fully ready to go, is he doing OK, is he seeing things OK, is he pressing, is his anxiety level up a little bit, is he trying to prove something?” There were no doubts about Rodrigues after he completed 69 percent (50-of-72) of his passes for 633 yards and five touchdowns in the first two games. He has thrown for 558 yards and two touchdowns since then, completing 51 percent (48-of-93) of his passes.

Tompkins can run like nobody’s business and leads the Aggies with five rushing touchdowns, but the redshirt freshman will never make a living by throwing the ball. In his first series against Idaho State, Tompkins carried the ball five times for 31 yards during a nine-play, 59-yard drive that Isaiah Gomez capped with a 33-yard field goal. Tompkins’ second series did not go nearly as well.

Hunter Rodrigues

UC Davis got the ball back with 5:13 to play in the first half. Tompkins completed his first pass for 10 yards to Jared Harrell. His second would have been worth 26 yards and a first down at the Idaho State 10, but the completion to Hutton was wiped out by a holding penalty. The series ended with Tompkins misfiring on three consecutive passes, the last on fourth-and-17 at the Idaho State 43.

Hawkins’ gamble backfired when the Bengals needed just six plays and 61 seconds to go 57 yards for their third touchdown. Hawkins turned to redshirt freshman Miles Hastings in the third quarter with the Aggies having to throw in hopes of mounting a comeback. Hastings completed three of his first five passes for 24 yards, but his one and only series ended on second-and-9 at the Idaho State 16 when his pass to the end zone was intercepted.

Hastings came to the rescue for the Aggies against Weber State after Rodrigues was knocked out. Hastings was 7-of-8 for 50 yards as UC Davis drove 59 yards in 13 plays for the go-ahead touchdown, which Tompkins scored on a 1-yard run with 4:39 to play. That performance has somehow been forgotten since Hastings threw the interception at Idaho State. He has not played in the past two games.

“When you lose the turnover battle, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to lose the football game,” Hawkins said at a press conference three days after the loss to Idaho State. “Not only did we turn the ball over, but we turned the ball over in the red area. We gave them the ball when we had potential points on the board.”

Hawkins learned that lesson when he played fullback for the Aggies in 1981 and ’82. “If I fumbled one time, I wasn’t going to play,” he recalled. “That was the kind of standard. I don’t think I ever did. I don’t think I ever dropped the ball.”

UC Davis dropped the ball by losing at Idaho State. The cost remains to be determined. The Aggies will host Eastern Washington (4-0 in the Big Sky Conference) on Nov. 13 and Sacramento State (3-0) a week later. That will be the first time this season that UC Davis will have consecutive home games.

“I actually found this out. It’s illegal to play two home games in a row,” Hawkins quipped. “It’s an NCAA violation. It’s an unfair advantage I heard.”

Aggies buck trend in victory


Completing fewer than 20 passes in a game usually means trouble for UC Davis. Scoring fewer than 20 points in a game often spells defeat for the Aggies. Entering this season, UC Davis had not won a game in which it failed to score 20 points since a 12-8 victory at South Dakota State in 2012. That would be a losing streak of nine years and 26 games if you are into such minutia.

The Aggies also entered this season with a record of 14-30 since 2011 in games in which they did not complete 20 passes. Coach Dan Hawkins is probably not aware of that and probably could not care less. The former UC Davis fullback will stake his record on the strategy of running paves the path to winning.

UC Davis is 4-0 this season with more rushing plays (163) than passing attempts (142). The Aggies went 3-2 in the spring with the offense again preferring to keep the ball on the ground (232 rushing attempts) than letting it fly (142 passes).

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Miles Hastings

That was hardly the case in 2018 when UC Davis finished 10-3 and shared the Big Sky Conference championship. Jake Maier threw 557 passes and completed 364 for 3,931 yards on his way to being named the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. The Aggies ran their way to 2,159 yards on 447 carries.

Maier had just one game that season in which he failed to complete 20 passes. It had no impact on the outcome at Cal Poly as five of Maier’s 17 completions accounted for touchdowns in the Aggies’ 52-10 victory. That was one of three games in 2018 and the only victory in which Maier did not pass for at least 230 yards.

That was then and this is now. The Aggies have already won two games this season in which they did not complete 20 passes. That is as many times as they have won without scoring 20 points. They pulled out a 19-17 victory at Tulsa on Sept. 2 with the offense scoring just one touchdown. Isaiah Gomez kicked two of his four field goals in the fourth quarter to put UC Davis ahead.

And there was last Saturday’s 17-14 thrilling victory at Weber State with Hunter Rodrigues and Miles Hastings combining to complete 18 passes. Hastings came to the rescue after Rodrigues got rocked on a 5-yard run early in the fourth quarter.

Hastings misfired on two of his first three passes and then completed six in a row. The Aggies had converted just three of 14 third downs when Hastings completed an 11-yard pass to Ulonzo Gilliam on third-and-6 at the Wildcats’ 42. Hastings sustained the drive on fourth-and-6 at the Weber State 27 with a 9-yard strike to Carson Crawford. The Aggies then called a timeout with 2:42 to play.

Two more completions gave UC Davis a first-and-goal at the Weber State 7. After Hastings was sacked for a 5-yard loss, he lofted a pass to C.J. Hutton in the end zone with Weber State’s Eddie Heckard bumping Hutton to the point that Hutton fell as the pass sailed well out of the end zone. Heckard was called for pass interference and the penalty resulted in a first down at the 2.

Enter Trent Tompkins, who is listed as a quarterback on the roster but has done nearly everything this season except sell popcorn at the concession stand. Tompkins took a direct snap on the first down and went straight ahead, plunging into a pile of bodies and being stopped short of the goal line.

The middle did not work, so Tompkins went outside on second down. The Aggies went with four tight ends. McCallan Castles and Evan Bearden were on the left, with Castles in the backfield between Bearden and left tackle Nick Amoah. Bearden chipped linebacker Winston Reid as Castles and Amoah came around behind him to lead the way for Tompkins. Reid got away from Bearden only to get knocked on his fanny and into the end zone by Amoah.

Tompkins waltzed into the end zone with 27 seconds to play. That was the Aggies’ 43rd running play compared with 35 pass attempts. Hawkins must have known what he was doing when he told the players on Friday that they would win. “I’ve never done that,” Hawkins explained Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “I didn’t do it for bragging. I didn’t do it for confidence. I really felt like that.”

What a feeling!

No place like Davis for Castles

Sleeping on an air mattress in the basement of his uncle’s house was not all that bad. Having to leave his football gear in the garage after getting home from practice at South Tahoe High School was no big deal. His mother believed the smell would keep bears away from the garbage cans outside the family’s home.

Sharing a house with four of his UC Davis teammates has its benefits. There are three full size refrigerators and the garage was turned into a weight room when the five sophomores were stuck at home during the COVID-19 quarantine. Each of the five has a car, so they often squabble for dibs on the driveway.

His comfort level with the Aggies and garage workouts have contributed to McCallan Castles becoming one of the top tight ends in the country. HeroSports.com ranked Castles as the No. 1 returning tight end among FCS teams. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound Castles and Idaho’s Hayden Hatten are the only FCS tight ends to have three touchdown receptions after the first two weeks of the season.

Hunter Rodrigues threw two of his career-high four touchdown passes to Castles last Saturday as UC Davis cruised to a 53-7 win at the University of San Diego. The Aggies avoided a letdown after coming away with a 19-17 victory at Tulsa on Sept. 2. Tulsa is one of eight FBS teams to lose to an FCS opponent so far this season.

McCallan Castles

UC Davis is one of three Big Sky Conference squads to upset an FBS team in 2021. The others are Eastern Washington (35-33 in double overtime against UNLV) and Montana (13-7 against then-No. 20 Washington). The Grizzlies’ victory over the Huskies was the first by an FCS team against a ranked FBS program since 2016.

Castles played in an FBS vs. FCS game in 2019. He happened to be attending Cal at the time and earned the starting job at tight end as a redshirt freshman. Castles committed to the Golden Bears as a junior at South Tahoe after catching 65 passes for 1,193 yards and 15 touchdowns in the 2016 season. Cal was by no means the only school pursuing the three-star recruit. He also received scholarship offers from Arizona State, Colorado, Duke, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State.

Wanting to play as close as possible to home led Castles to making his verbal commitment to Cal without giving his other suitors the time of day. Adjusting to Berkeley after being raised in South Lake Tahoe, moving to Bethroud, Colo., and then returning to South Lake Tahoe was 100,000 volts of culture shock. Castles had never lived in a city with more than 22,000 residents. More than 42,000 students attend Cal and account for one third of Berkeley’s population.

To say Castles was overwhelmed would be putting it mildly. He would have been better off in the basement of his uncle’s house in South Lake Tahoe. Castles lived with his uncle so he could start the school year at South Tahoe High in 2016 as his parents were clearing out the family’s home in Bethroud.

His decision to leave Cal came after Castles started in the 2019 season opener … against UC Davis. He played the next week against Washington before going to Golden Bears head coach Justin Wilcox to turn in his playbook. Castles would need more than fingers and toes to count how many people he feared he would disappoint by quitting. That paled in comparison, however, to how he would have felt by staying at Cal where he did not belong.

“When you take that (recruiting) visit, you’re usually only around the campus. I didn’t really experience all of Berkeley,” Castles recalled. “I’ve never been a city person. I was calling my mom and dad every week and I’d tell them, ‘I don’t know if I can make it here.’ It was like I was letting the environment affect how much I liked football. I was questioning if I even wanted to play anymore.”

A warm welcome from the Aggies rekindled Castles’ passion, which had been called into question when UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins spoke to Wilcox about Castles’ resolution. “Wilcox said he didn’t know if I loved it anymore,'” Castles said. “When I got to Davis, I knew I had to prove to myself and everybody else that I wanted to be here. For (Hawkins) to let me come in and give me an opportunity to play, it’s been great. This is more my speed.”

Aggies open by closing out win

Four minutes stood between UC Davis and an improbable victory at Tulsa last Thursday. The Golden Hurricanes had three timeouts , but stopping the Aggies and forcing a punt would have been far better than resorting to calling timeouts to stop the clock. All Tulsa needed was enough time to kick a field goal to avoid losing at home to an FCS team after being a 22-point favorite.

UC Davis had just dodged a bullet when Chris Venable slammed into Tulsa wide receiver Kenyon Stokes at the Aggies’ 8-yard line and forced a fumble. The ball bounced through the end zone because Erron Duncan arrived in time to prevent any Tulsa player from recovering it for the go-ahead touchdown.

“The fumble caused by Venable was amazing. The next thing that was amazing was to watch Erron Duncan go 100 mph to get to the ball,” UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “As soon as it was a fumble, the first thing that came into my mind was we’ve got to get on that. If they get the ball, we go home with a nice try instead of a nice win.”

Sealing a 19-17 victory would require the Aggies to make two first downs and force the Golden Hurricanes to spend their timeouts. Wide receiver Kris Vaughn added to the degree of difficulty by being called for a fast start on first down to put the Aggies at the 15-yard line with 15 yards to go to maintain possession.

A 6-yard run by Ulonzo Gilliam was made possible by 6-foot-5, 233-pound tight end McCallan Castles aligning right and pulling left to pave the way for the running back through the hole. Castles followed by catching a pass from quarterback Hunter Rodrigues for a 12-yard gain and a first down at the 33.

Tulsa stopped Gilliam for no gain on the next play. It was his sixth carry in which the junior did not gain an inch. Thirteen of his 25 carries went for 3 or fewer yards. Hawkins credited his son Cody, the Aggies offensive coordinator, for sticking with the running game even though Gilliam was not having much luck.

“(The Golden Hurricanes are) pretty stout up front,” Hawkins said. “The tendency is when you play a team with a dominant defensive front that you give up on the running game and then everything else collapses. We kept chipping away.”

UC Davis finished with 88 yards rushing, its lowest total since managing just 63 against Sacramento State in the 2019 Causeway Classic.

Gilliam has been a workhorse for the Aggies since arriving from Merced High in 2017. He paid his dues for a year as a redshirt and then became a starter in 2018. In the opener at San Jose State, Gilliam ran for 143 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 44-38 victory. The Aggies also beat the Spartans in 2010 for their first win against an FBS team since climbing to Division I in 2007.

His hands have also been put to good use. Gilliam’s 124 receptions are the most by a running back in school history. His 124th came at the perfect time last Thursday with UC Davis facing a third-and-4 at its 49-yard line after Tulsa called its third timeout with 1:56 to play. Rodrigues faked a handoff to Vaughn on what appeared to be a jet sweep to the left as Gilliam slipped out of the backfield to the right for an 8-yard reception to seal the deal.

“He’s a real special player. He’s unbelievably tough,” Hawkins said of Gilliam. “He’s someone our offense leans on.”

The University of San Diego knows that all too well. In 2019, Gilliam ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns as the Aggies pulled out a 38-35 victory over the Toreros. His 1-yard scoring run with 3:35 to play was the difference. San Diego was one yard away from winning when Devon King forced a fumble that Isaiah Thomas recovered to bail out UC Davis.

Hawkins can only hope his players will not take San Diego lightly or suffer a letdown after knocking off Tulsa. “We’re not going to overestimate Tulsa or underestimate anybody else. That’s just not how we roll,” Hawkins said. “You may outscore (San Diego), but they will not beat themselves. They’re a tough out. It helps you as a coach because you’d better be on it because you know they’re going to be on it.”

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