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

Time for Weber State exorcism


Jake Maier will leave the ghosts to Sam Darnold. Even if the UC Davis quarterback happened to see one in a game, the senior would never admit it. He will graduate in December with a degree in communication, not parapsychology. All Maier needs to know about apparitions is to steer clear of them.

Weber State did not need ghosts to spook Maier in September 2017 when he was a sophomore making just his fourth start for the Aggies. The Long Beach City College transfer passed for 943 yards and eight touchdowns in the first three games as if to prove the jump from a junior college to Division I was not all that daunting.

Not only were the Wildcats daunting two years ago in Ogden, Utah. They were downright scary. UC Davis needed just four plays after receiving the opening kickoff to reach Weber State’s 3-yard line. Maier was sacked for a 6-yard loss on first down, and a false start penalty left the Aggies with second-and-goal at the 14. All a 7-yard pass on third down did was give Max O’Rouke a 24-yard field goal.

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Jake Maier

Those three points with the game not even four minutes old were it for the Aggies. The Wildcats answered with a 67-yard touchdown pass, a field goal and a 98-yard scoring run in the first 15 minutes. Weber State added an 84-yard punt return for six points and another scoring pass in the second quarter to lead 31-3.

The horror show ended after the Wildcats made it 41-3 in the third quarter and were nice enough not to score in the fourth. Maier chuckled when asked if he saw any ghosts that day. Even if they had appeared, he would have missed them because the Wildcats were in his face from start to finish.

Maier managed to throw for 327 yards, but he was intercepted twice and sacked five times. How about the transition from junior college to Division I not being that difficult? Maier was haunted into humility by Weber State, which finished 11-3 in 2017 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.

“I definitely remember how good they were in man coverages,” Maier said. “We moved the ball pretty well. Once you get inside the red zone against them, they make it extremely difficult. They present you with different looks and funky pressures. They try to confuse you  The sophomore in me at that time, it affected me and I got confused. That game taught me a lot. It was a wakeup call for me.”

To say Maier has a score to settle Saturday when Weber State pays a visit to Davis would be an understatement. The Wildcats are 5-2 and ranked fifth in the FCS poll. The Aggies are 4-4 and sit at No. 22. Three of the Aggies’ four remaining games are against teams ranked in the top 10. After Weber State comes No. 9 Montana State on Nov. 16 and  No. 8 Sacramento State on Nov. 23 in the 66th annual Causeway Classic at Hornet Stadium.

UC Davis can only afford one more loss, so the Aggies must beat two of those teams to stand any chance of returning to the FCS playoffs after reaching the postseason for the first time in 2018. Looking too far ahead  concerned Maier earlier this season when the Aggies talked of Big Sky Conference and national championships. A three-game losing streak changed their focus to now.

That was evident for UC Davis in victories over Cal Poly and Southern Utah the past two weeks, but those two teams are a combined 3-12. Weber State’s losses were against two FBS teams, San Diego State and Nevada, by a total of 12 points. When Maier looks ahead, it is only as far as Weber State.

UC Davis and Weber State did not meet in 2018, but they shared the Big Sky crown with Eastern Washington. UC Davis lost to Eastern Washington, which lost to Weber State, but Weber State lost to Northern Arizona.

“It’s all about us right now and preparing for a great opponent. Nothing else matters,” Maier said. “I like where we’re at right now. It will be as tough as it was two years ago, but it will be about how we handle some of those moments. If we take care of the ball, we’ll be OK. If you turn the ball over against them, they’re all over it.”

Aggies receiver comes armed

Carson Crawford is nearly adept at throwing the ball as he is at catching it.

Two field goals and a 15-point deficit were all UC Davis to show had after nearly 42 minutes of futility against Montana last Oct. 27. The Aggies had a little more than a quarter to mount a comeback if they were to beat the Grizzlies for the first time in eight meetings and improve to 5-0 in the Big Sky Conference.

The defense did its part after Max O’Rourke’s 41-yard field goal by stopping Montana on fourth-and-1 at the UC Davis 34-yard line. Carson Crawford, a redshirt freshman at the time, could sense a shift in momentum. Before the offense took the field, the wide receiver learned the first play would be his.

Offensive coordinator Tim Plough called a play in which Crawford takes the ball from quarterback Jake Maier and becomes the passer. His 40-yard toss found tight end Wes Preece, who then rumbled 16 yards for a first down at the Montana 10. The Aggies scored their first touchdown two plays later.

“Forty yards is not that hard for me, especially when the guy is pretty wide open,” said Crawford, who threw for 3,010 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior at Beaverton (Ore.) High School in 2016 after switching from receiver to quarterback. “It’s nice that the coaches have trust in me for me not to do something stupid.”

The Aggies liked reaching the end zone so much that they kept going back, doing so five times in the fourth quarter to win 49-21. Crawford capped the onslaught by catching a 5-yard touchdown pass for Maier with 5:08 to play.

Montana will have a score to settle Saturday at 1 p.m. in Davis. The Grizzlies will surely be mindful of Crawford’s arm after being burned last season. They may also want to watch out for his hands because Crawford is not only deployed for what Plough calls “exotic plays.” The sophomore has become a reliable receiver and shares the team lead with 24 catches.

Crawford needs just two more to surpass his 2018 total of 25, not that he is counting. He was content contributing on “exotic plays” in 2018 and would be so again this season if that was his role. Plough appears to have more in store for Crawford now that Keelan Doss has left UC Davis for the NFL.

“That was my role last year because we had Keelan out there,” Crawford said of Doss, who graduated with 321 receptions for 4,069 yards and 28 touchdowns. “I was nowhere near Keelan then and I’m still nowhere near Keelan. As long as we’re winning, I’m pretty much OK with anything.”

The same goes for Crawford with jersey numbers. He has no idea how he got No. 86 last year and would have been happy with it again this season had his father Chris not said otherwise. Chris wore No. 6 during his glory days as a quarterback at Portland State and ordered his son to take it when UC Davis receivers Cody Hawkins offered it to Crawford last January.

“I didn’t need a new number,” Crawford recalled. “I didn’t do enough last year where I would think I should get a new number.”

Crawford lost his father to leukemia just weeks after accepting No. 6. He has since added the Roman numeral for six to the tattoo on the inside of his left wrist. His father had the same tattoo with his favorite saying, “Press on.”

And to think Crawford almost passed on taking it. “I’m glad I did, that’s for sure,” he said. “It reminds me of him every day.”

Better blockers than barbers

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Kooper Richardson, left, and Jake Parks wet their whistles in a recent practice.

Colton Lamson cannot wait to have his hair styled into a mullet, but the UC Davis offensive tackle claims a visit to a salon or barber shop is beyond his budget. Who knew the crafting of a short-in-the-front, long-in-the-back mullet would require professional services instead of clippers and a bathroom mirror?

The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Lamson can open holes for running backs and protect quarterback Jake Maier, but cutting his own hair might be a bit much to ask of a sociology major with an emphasis in law and society. The junior needs a mullet if for no other reason than to honor his deal with Kooper Richardson.

Lamson and Richardson must have had too much free time on their hands in May 2018 when they made a pledge to “just be fun with our hair,” the 6-6, 298-pound Richardson recalled. “I was a little skeptical at first, but then we committed to it. My girlfriend hates it, but I love it. That’s all that matters.”

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Will Martin

Their objective was not shock value or to just make their teammates laugh. There was actually a method to the mullet madness. “We thought what would be better to exemplify offensive line play and tackles,” Lamson explained. “It’s a mullet. What’s more dirty and nastier than that? That’s how we want to play.”

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Colton Lamson

No one can argue with the results. The two tackles combined with senior Ramsey Hufford, redshirt freshman Connor Pettek and true freshman Jake Parks in 2018 to pave the way for the Aggies to capture a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and advance to the FCS playoffs for the first time.

UC Davis shared the title with Eastern Washington and Weber State. Eastern Washington had all five of its offensive linemen honored in the all-conference voting with three on the second team and two on the third. Weber State had two on the first team and one earn honorable mention. UC Davis had none.

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Connor Pettek

The only recognition that Richardson, Lamson, Pettek, Smith and Parks usually receive is when a student runs into one of them on campus and asks if he plays football – not that the person doing the recognizing knows his name or his position. “No one comes to a game,” Pettek offered, “to see the offensive line play.”

Parks started all 13 games last season. Pettek became a starter in Week 2 after senior Will Martin was injured in the season-opening victory at San Jose State. Martin has returned this season after receiving a medical hardship waiver. “It’s kind of like coming back home,” Martin said. “It’s family. It’s comfortable.”

Martin and Parks have resisted the temptation to join the mullet movement. Pettek tried to join, but he has been left looking like Brian Setzer of rockabilly fame if Setzer joined the cast of “Duck Dynasty.” UC Davis does not have a hair policy for athletes, Pettek said, so “it’s kind of like go for it. If you think it’s either funny or looks good, go for it. I was trying to get a little mullet going, but they messed it up.”

The linemen might have been pulling their hair out this week had the Aggies not rallied for a 38-35 victory at San Diego last Saturday. UC Davis bolted to a 14-0 lead, but San Diego fought back and took its first lead at 35-31 with 8:47 to play. The Aggies responded with an 81-yard drive in 14 plays to win it. Gilliam rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry to the delight of the offensive line. Senior quarterback Jake Maier was sacked just once in passing for 359 yards and two scores.

 “When we get clicking in a game and moving as a unit, it’s a force,” Lamson said. “We want to let Jake do his thing and we know he’s going to shred people if we give him time, but we want to run the rock.”

The Aggies hope to rock in their home opener against Lehigh at 7 p.m. Saturday.