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.

Larison’s return fuels Aggies

Lan Larison celebrates with Jake Parks (60), Peter Povey (63) and Jordan Ford after scoring the Aggies’ first touchdown on Saturday.

Every college football team has a trick play in which a running back attempts to throw a pass. Lan Larison has throw six passes for UC Davis, completing three for 38 yards. Those paltry numbers do not strike fear in opposing defenses, but they know better than to ignore the junior.

Larison played quarterback at Vallivue High School in Caldwell, Idaho, where he attracted attention for his running prowess. His statistics as a senior in 2018 bear that out. Larison rushed for 2,373 yards and 27 touchdowns. In his spare time, Larison passed for 788 yards and nine touchdowns.

UC Davis made it clear when Larison arrived in 2020 that there would be little chance he would ever play quarterback. There was always the possibility of Larison throwing the ball on a trick play. And that led to a trick play in which Larison acts as if he will throw and then tucks the ball away to run.

That very play produced the Aggies’ first touchdown in Saturday’s 37-23 victory over Portland State. Larison was aligned behind quarterback Miles Hastings on second-and-goal at the 4-yard line. Hastings went in motion to the left, leaving Larison to take a direct snap. Larison cocked his right arm as if to pass and then bolted untouched to the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

Larison had only just begun. He ran for two more touchdowns for the first hat trick of his career. He also had his second consecutive 100-yard game by running for 136 on 25 carries. Larison carried the ball 49 times in those two games after missing three games with an injured right knee.

Lan Larison is upended by Portland State’s Michael Hurst.

The injury occurred in the third quarter of the 27-24 loss to Eastern Washington on Sept. 23. Larison’s departure likely cost the Aggies a shot at beating the Eagles for the first time in 11 meetings. He left after gaining 54 yards on nine carries to fuel a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that put the Aggies ahead at 24-20 with 6:24 remaining in the third quarter.

A 300-yard game was well within Larison’s reach after he finished with 255 yards on 22 carries, including a 78-yard touchdown dash in the second quarter. Mike Ichiyama is the only UC Davis player to rush for 300 yards in a game, doing so in 1994 against San Francisco State and Chico State .

Larison leads the Big Sky Conference by averaging 119.3 rushing yards per game. He ranks third in rushing yards (716) despite missing three games. Larison ran for 416 yards in 2022 as the understudy to senior Ulonzo Gilliam, who graduated as the Aggies’ all-time leading rusher with 4,364 yards.

UC Davis will need Larison to be at his best to stand any chance of making the FCS playoffs. The Aggies are 5-4 with two games to go and it usually takes seven victories to earn a postseason ticket. UC Davis and Sacramento State are among the six teams tied for fourth place in the Big Sky at 3-3.

Montana State, Montana and Idaho share first place at 5-1. Montana rolled past Sacramento State 34-7 on Saturday night in Missoula. The Grizzlies became the first team since Arizona State in 2019 to shut out the Hornets in three quarters of a game. Sacramento State is 6-3 and will likely get to seven wins when it faces Cal Poly (3-6) next Saturday at Hornet Stadium.

The Causeway Classic on Nov. 18 at UC Davis Health Stadium could very well determine whether UC Davis or Sacramento State makes the playoffs. The Hornets have advanced to the postseason in each of the past three full seasons. Sacramento State did not play when the 2020 season was wiped out by COVID-19 and turned into five games in the spring of 2021.