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!