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.

More expected of Aggies coach

Four convincing victories in the past four weeks have done nothing more for UC Davis than prove the Aggies can have their way with the also-rans in the Big Sky Conference. More is expected of a team that coach Dan Hawkins predicted would be the best in the program’s history. Then again, maybe more should be expected of Hawkins.

UC Davis alumni cheered when Hawkins returned to his alma mater in 2017. The cheers became much louder in 2018 when the Aggies went 10-3, shared the Big Sky championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time. That seems much longer than four years ago. COVID-19 deserves most of the blame, but Hawkins is by no means innocent.

Let’s not forget that Hawkins won in 2018 with players recruited by Ron Gould, who is now the running backs coach at Stanford. Gould was 12-33 in four seasons with the Aggies with his only saving grace being three victories in four tries against Sacramento State.

Dan Hawkins

Erase the 2018 season and Hawkins’ record is 26-23. He has guided the Aggies to winning records in just two of his first five years at the helm and that includes a 3-2 record in the spring of 2021. And let’s remember that Sacramento State opted not to play in that makeshift spring season. Hawkins is 0-2 against Troy Taylor and the Hornets.

That will surely become 0-3 in two weeks when the Aggies visit Hornet Stadium for the 68th edition of the Causeway Classic. The Hornets have not won three straight against their rivals since winning five in a row from 1988 to 1991. It will be a must win game for the Aggies if they want to stand any chance of advancing the FCS playoffs for the third time since 2018.

And that is only if UC Davis can come out with a victory on Saturday at Idaho. The Vandals are ranked No. 25 in the FCS Coaches Poll three weeks after knocking off No. 3 Montana 30-23 in Missoula. The coaches made it clear how they feel about the Aggies’ four-game winning streak against cupcakes. None of them voted for UC Davis.

Idaho can hang its hat on upsetting Montana and losing by just three points to No. 3 Sacramento State on the road Oct. 29. UC Davis does not have one victory worthy of comparison. Narrow losses at No. 1 South Dakota State (24-22) and at home to No. 6 Weber State (17-12) are noteworthy, but there are no brownie points for falling short.

Seventeen of Hawkins’ 36 wins have come against Cal Poly, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado and Portland State. Those teams are a combined 7-23 in the Big Sky this season. Four wins were against the University of San Diego. Cal Poly is 0-6 in the Big Sky and 1-8 overall this season with that one victory coming against San Diego.

At least a few of those victories had to be taken into account when Hawkins got a six-year contract extension after last season. Cal Poly, Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado can look forward to more losses. And UC Davis fans can look forward to five more years of the Aggies being just good enough to finish in the middle of the pack.

That will likely be the Aggies’ fate this season. If this is the best team in Aggies history, maybe Hawkins should be history. What began as a feel good story when Hawkins returned has become a tale of mediocrity. And this is the worst time for UC Davis to be stuck in neutral with Taylor pushing the pedal to the metal at Sacramento State.

UC Davis raised the bar in 2018, but it now appears to be out of reach. Hawkins would have to climb on Taylor’s shoulders to stand any chance of coming close. At least he has five more years to try.

Quarterback pulls rank at UCD

Ulonzo Gilliam carries more weight at UC Davis than his 189 pounds. His teammates listen intently whenever Gilliam speaks because the senior running back has earned their respect in word and deed. He is not just a team captain on a power trip when it comes to addressing his teammates.

Gilliam and sophomore linebacker Teddye Buchanan were voted team captains before the start of the season. Gilliam is the first three-time captain in the program’s history. To put that distinction in perspective, four former Aggies who played in the NFL – Ken O’Brien, Mike Moroski, Bo Eason and J.T. O’Sullivan – are among the players who were two-time captains.

Miles Hastings

Buchanan and Gilliam are joined by two additional captains whom they pick for each game. There will be just one additional captain in the final four games. Quarterback Miles Hastings will join Gilliam and Buchanan beginning on Saturday when Cal Poly visits Davis.

Coach Dan Hawkins made the announcement at his weekly press conference Monday. Hawkins shared that Gilliam made a point when addressing the team to say he was not picking Hastings as a captain just for the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe. Gilliam added three games because of all Hastings has endured – losing the starting job last year, regaining it this season and proving he can take charge of the offense.

“That’s how strongly (Gilliam) and the rest of the guys feel about it,” Hawkins said. “Every quarterback goes through an up-and-down journey. I always say a quarterback has to walk through the valley of death at some point in his career. (Hastings) never wavered. He’s never batted an eye.”

Hastings opened more than a few eyes in the past two weeks as UC Davis routed Northern Arizona 56-27 at home and Northern Colorado 58-10 in Greeley, Colo. The sophomore completed 39 of 47 passes (83 percent) for 579 yards and five touchdowns in the lopsided victories. And he did not throw an interception in either game. That is certainly worth noting.

Interceptions were a problem in 2021 for Hastings, who was picked off eight times in 215 passing attempts. He threw five interceptions in the final three games, including two in a 56-24 loss at South Dakota State in the FCS playoffs. A season that began with five consecutive victories ended with three losses in a row, leaving the disappointed Aggies with an 8-4 record.

“I didn’t play well last year toward the end. We didn’t finish the season the way we wanted,” said Hastings, who has thrown for 1,840 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He leads the Big Sky Conference in average passing yards per game at 262.9. He is second in passing yards and completion percentage (68.3).

Eight victories are out of reach this season for the Aggies, who are 3-4 and will likely have to win their final four games to stand any chance of returning to the FCS playoffs. That will be a tall task with two games on the road against ranked teams – No. 14 Idaho on Nov. 12 and No. 2 Sacramento State in the 68th annual Causeway Classic on Nov. 19. Stay tuned.

UC Davis gets kicked around

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins admitted Monday to asking too much of kicker Isaiah Gomez in Saturday’s 17-12 loss to Weber State. Gomez set a school record for field-goal attempts in a game with five. And all five came in the first half. The senior made two, shanked two and Weber State’s Maxwell Anderson got a hand on the fifth to send it wide right.

Each miss came from 50 yards. It was surprising that Hawkins called for a field goal from that distance because Gomez has never made a field goal longer than 45 yards. And Gomez has been inconsistent this season, missing as many field goals (six) in four games as he did in 12 games last year.

“I really trust (Gomez) a lot,” Hawkins said, “so I probably put him in some bad situations.” Those situations may have been born out of desperation because the offense scored more touchdowns (six) in defeating San Diego 43-13 on Sept. 17 than it has in three losses (five).

UC Davis tight end McCallan Castles is stopped just short of the goal line after catching a pass from Miles Hastings.

His first 50-yard try Saturday was in the first quarter after quarterback Miles Hastings’ 3-yard pass to running back Ulonzo Gilliam on third-and-12. That was after a 1-yard pass to wide receiver Justin Kraft on second down at the Weber State 36-yard line. The Aggies seemed intent on keeping a tight leash on Hastings, who completed 39 of 57 passes with 21 going for 5 or fewer yards.

Gomez bounced back with a 41-yard field goal with 7:47 to play in the first half to leave UC Davis trailing 14-6. His second miss from 50 came four minutes later. The Aggies gave Gomez one more opportunity by forcing the Wildcats to punt with 1:50 to go. Hastings completed seven consecutive passes for 59 yards to give UC Davis a first-and-goal at the Weber State 1. Hastings made it eight in a row with a pass on first down to tight end McCallan Castles, but Castles was tackled short of the goal line.

That left Hawkins with a choice of going for a touchdown or settling for a gimme field goal from 18 yards. To put that in perspective, an extra-point kick is 20 yards. Hawkins opted for a field goal, but Weber State’s Maxwell Anderson came around the left side to deflect the kick and send it wide right.

Hawkins defended his decision to go for three points because “you don’t want to chase points. It was too early to chase points. If we got that field goal, we’d be down by one score coming out of the tunnel (for the second half).”

Weber State’s Maxwell Anderson (3) celebrates with his teammates after deflecting a short field-goal attempt.

Gomez’s right leg got a break in the second half. He was needed for one kickoff after Hastings’ 19-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver C.J. Hutton with 5:33 to go in the third quarter. The Aggies went for a two-point conversion, but Hastings’ pass to wide receiver Lance Babb fell incomplete.

The loss was difficult for Hawkins to accept because he believes his team outplayed Weber State. The statistics bear that out. The Aggies outgained the Wildcats 417-356, ran 21 more plays, had a six-minute edge in time of possession and forced three turnovers without once giving the ball away.

“You look at the stats and you’d think ‘Boy, the Aggies won that game,’ but we didn’t,” Hawkins explained. “Anytime you get three turnovers and you don’t turn it over, you’re probably going to win that game. “

Hawkins stuck out his neck earlier this month when he proclaimed his 2022 team will be the best in history. The Aggies are 1-3 and likely will be 1-4 after playing Montana State in Bozeman on Saturday. Montana State is ranked fourth in the latest FCS poll and has won six in a row against UC Davis.

Saturday’s game will be on ESPNU at 7:15 p.m.

Who will be QB for UC Davis?

Miles Hastings (7) is one of six quarterbacks auditioning to start for UC Davis.

Dan Hawkins has no patience for quarterbacks who are careless with the football. His son can attest to that. Cody was the starting quarterback at Colorado in 2009 when he was benched by his father are throwing two interceptions in a 38-14 loss to Texas. Those turnovers contributed to the Longhorns outscoring the Buffaloes 35-0 in the second half.

Quarterback Miles Hastings has tested Hawkins’ patience at UC Davis. Hawkins had it easy in his first three seasons after returning to coach at his alma mater. His return coincided with quarterback Jake Maier’s transfer from Long Beach City College. Maier passed for a school-record 11,163 yards and 88 touchdowns in three seasons with the Aggies. He was the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 after leading UC Davis to a share of the conference championship and its first FCS playoff berth.

Maier’s departure after the 2019 season left the Aggies in search of a new leader behind center. The search has continued into 2022 and through two weeks of spring practice. Hawkins and his son, who is the Aggies offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, will get their last look at the six quarterback candidates in Saturday’s scrimmage until the Aggies reconvene in August to begin preparations for the Sept. 3 opener at Cal.

Hunter Rodrigues would have been the seventh candidate had he not opted to graduate early with a year of eligibility remaining. He would have had the edge in experience over the other hopefuls after starting all five games last spring and six of 12 in the fall. There was nothing to suggest Rodrigues was in jeopardy of losing the job until he sustained a concussion on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter at Weber State on Sept. 25.

Trent Tompkins

Hastings came off the bench and to the offense’s rescue by playing with the poise of a senior despite being just a freshman. He completed seven of nine passes for 50 yards as the Aggies went 56 yards in 13 plays to take a 17-14 lead with 27 seconds to play. Trent Tompkins replaced Hastings and scored on a 1-yard plunge to cap the drive that lasted more than six minutes. UC Davis safety Erron Duncan sealed the victory with an interception on the first play of Weber State’s ensuing possession.

With Rodrigues sitting out the following week, Hastings started against Idaho and the offense sputtered with 13 points in three quarters. Tompkins took a few snaps in the first three quarters before taking over in the fourth. He accounted for every yard in a 62-yard drive that he capped by lofting a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jared Harrell. Tompkins completed all three of his passes for 34 yards and added two runs for 28.

UC Davis took the lead at 27-20 with 8:05 to play when wide receiver Carson Crawford took a pitch from Tompkins and tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end McCallan Castles.

As they did against Idaho, the Aggies scored 14 points in the fourth quarter at Idaho State the following week. Those points did nothing more than make the game appear closer than it was. Rodrigues started and struggled, completing as many passes to the Bengals (two) as he did to his teammates. Idaho State turned those two interceptions into 10 points in building a 24-3 halftime lead on its way to a 27-17 victory.

The game was intriguing if for no other reason than Hawkins’ decision to go with Tompkins’ legs instead of Hastings’ arm when Rodrigues was sent to the bench after throwing his second interception on the first play of the second quarter with UC Davis trailing 14-0.

Hastings got his chance on the Aggies’ first possession in the third quarter, threw an interception on second-and-9 at Idaho State’s 16-yard line after UC Davis marched 59 yards in 12 plays and was never seen again that day. At least Rodrigues got the opportunity to throw a second interception before he got the hook from Hawkins.

Such an exit was nothing new for Hastings. The difference was his departure against Idaho State was not scripted. Hastings was told last March that he would get the third possession against Cal Poly. “Whether we went down and scored or not, (Rodrigues) was going to go back in,” recalled Hastings, who did not keep Rodrigues out for long by throwing an interception that the Mustangs returned for a touchdown and a 10-7 lead.

“Obviously, that was not how I wanted it to go,” Hastings said. “It’s football. Bad plays happen. It’s a matter of how you come back from that and shake it off.”

Hastings did get a second chance, although getting his number called with UC Davis leading 59-17 was not the best situation to show what he can do. Hastings did complete all four of his passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, but you have to wonder if Cal Poly expected UC Davis would be throwing with such a lopsided lead.

There is nothing wrong with running the ball when a game is well out of hand. Four minutes after Hastings threw his first touchdown pass with the Aggies, Tompkins scored on an 86-yard dash to make it 73-17. Tompkins was the Aggies second-leading rusher last fall with 477 yards and tied Ulonzo Gilliam for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.

One can throw (hopefully only to his teammates). The other can run. And there are four other candidates, with the latest being transfer Jack Newman from San Francisco City College. All Newman did last fall was pass for 3,583 yards and 38 touchdowns as the Rams finished 13-0. He did throw six interceptions, so the other UC Davis candidates should never count themselves out.

In the words of Lloyd Christmas, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

Hornets, Aggies earn honors

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins had much more on his mind Tuesday than trying to find out how many of his Aggies were selected to the All-Big Sky Conference team. The Aggies are taking a crash course on South Dakota State in preparation for facing the Jackrabbits in the first round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday in Brookings, S.D. Even after Hawkins learned 12 players were honored, he did not jump out of his seat at his weekly press conference and celebrate.

“For every head coach who goes through the all-conference selection committee, it’s unbelievable,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of bartering that goes on and a lot of arguing. Life’s not fair, football’s not fair and in many cases all-conference teams are not fair. I’ve been doing this a long time and all-conference teams are always a head-scratcher. And they’ll probably continue to be.”

Josiah Erickson (44)

Three UC Davis players were named to the first team – guard Jake Parks, cornerback Brandon Perryman and running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. Big Sky champion Sacramento State had six first-team selections – wide receiver Pierre Williams, tight end Marshel Martin, center Thomas Parker, defensive end Josiah Erickson, kicker Kyle Sentkowski and all-purpose player Asher O’Hara.

Five Sacramento State players were second-team selections – offensive tackle Kooper Richardson, guard Brandon Weldon, outside linebacker Marte Mapu, inside linebacker Marcus Hawkins and cornerback Munchie Filer III. Richardson played three seasons at UC Davis and came to Sacramento State as a graduate transfer to play for his father Kris and with his brother Kaden.

UC Davis swept the second-team selections picks for special teams with punter Dan Whelan, kicker Isaiah Gomez, kick returner Lan Larison, punt returner Isaiah Thomas and all-purpose player Trent Tompkins,. Other second-team picks for the Aggies were tight end McCallan Castles, center Connor Pettek, defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers and safety Jaylin White. Sacramento State had five third-team selections – quarterback Jake Dunniway, running back Cameron Skattebo, cornerback Malik Jeter and punter Sam Clark. Defensive tackle Jett Stanley was honorable mention.

The Hornets are the No. 4 seed in the FCS playoffs and await the winner of the UC Davis-South Dakota State game in the second round on Dec. 4 at Hornet Stadium. UC Davis would welcome another shot at Sacramento State after the Hornets rolled to a 27-7 rout in the 67th annual Causeway Classic. Sacramento State has won the past two Causeway clashes and would likely be riding a three-game winning streak against UC Davis had the Hornets played last spring.

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).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is QB7-753x1024.jpg
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!

UCD senior in leading role

Isaiah Thomas has been worth his weight in yards as a punt returner for UC Davis. That might come as a surprise to anyone who checks statistics for Big Sky Conference teams. Thomas ranks sixth with an average of 6.6 yards per return and that is only after a 31-yard return last Saturday in a 60-27 victory over Dixie State.

Head coach Dan Hawkins can live with Thomas’ paltry average when it comes to measuring the senior’s effectiveness as a punt returner after three games this season. Hawkins would much rather think of how many yards Thomas can save the Aggies by catching a punt instead of letting the ball bounce and roll away.

“We don’t call (Thomas) the punt returner. We call him the punt catcher,” Hawkins said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. He was joined by Thomas and associate head coach Cha’pelle Brown. “Pretty much every time the ball hits the ground, you’re going to lose an average of 19 yards. Every time he catches one, that’s (an advantage of) 19 yards before (the offense) even starts.”

Isaiah Thomas

Every yard will count for UC Davis on Saturday when the Aggies battle Weber State in Ogden, Utah. UC Davis is ranked 12th and Weber State 15th in the FCS Coaches Poll. The Wildcats are the four-time defending Big Sky champions and claimed the title outright for the first time in the spring by going 5-0. Weber State shared the title with UC Davis and Eastern Washington in 2018. And there were plenty of folks at the time that thought the Aggies were not deserving because they did not play the Wildcats three years ago.

A shocking loss to Northern Arizona cost Weber State the outright title in 2018 because the Wildcats beat Eastern Washington, which crushed UC Davis 59-20. All those folks who questioned whether the Aggies were worthy of sharing the championship might have gotten their answer in 2019 when Weber State paid a visit to UC Davis and came away with a 36-20 victory. The Aggies had just 44 yards rushing in the loss, their lowest total on the ground since staggering to 13 yards four years ago in a 41-3 loss to … Weber State.

Hawkins looks forward to the day when Weber State returns to Davis. The rivals clashed in Ogden last March with Weber State pulling out an 18-15 victory and will do so again just 195 days later. “I should have bought a condo there,” Hawkins quipped. “We’re very used to the hotel there, the field there and the trip there.”

Weber State fans will have to be at their best to match the electricity in Davis last Saturday night. Fans returned to UC Davis Health Stadium for the first time since 2019 and 9,865 enjoyed an impressive performance by the Aggies. Ulonzo Gilliam rushed for 186 yards and three touchdowns. The junior also caught one of Hunter Rodrigues’ two touchdown passes. The defense contributed to the victory by intercepting five passes for the first time since 1985.

“It was magical here at the stadium on Saturday night. The stands were packed,” Hawkins said. “Our guys didn’t disappoint.”

Thomas energized the Aggies during pregame warmups by stomping and hollering in front of his teammates. He has stepped out front this season as one of four team captains. That Thomas has become a leader does not surprise Brown, who played for Hawkins at Colorado and was hired by UC Davis in 2017.

“I didn’t wait until he became a captain to tell him that he’s a leader. I told him that years ago,” said Brown, who works with Thomas and the other defensive backs. “But you have to do it the right way to be the captain. That’s why he’s the captain now because he does exactly what we ask him to do. And he’s doing it at a high level.”

Brown made it clear what he expects from the defensive backs. “To have been here for five years and seen the guys develop,” he said, “there are no more excuses.”

Thomas makes no excuses for his punt return average because saving yards for the Aggies is more than important than trying to break a return for a touchdown. “I’m definitely aggressive when it comes to catching a punt,” he said. “It’s harder for the offense to get going when we’re backed up. My goal is if I can get there, I’m going to catch it.”

As a starting safety and return specialist, Thomas has been quite a catch for the Aggies.

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.”