Aggies in rush to rebound

UC Davis offensive coordinator Tim Plough has one goal each week in devising his game plan. He wants sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam to carry or catch the ball 25 to 30 times. Plough would also like 15 to 20 touches for junior Tehran Thomas. If the two combine for 40 or more, it usually bodes well for the Aggies.

Gilliam and Thomas came close to 40 against top-ranked North Dakota State on Sept. 21. Gilliam had 19 rushing attempts and caught seven passes. Thomas had 11 carries and one reception. Their combined 38 touches and 173 total yards are a big reason why the Aggies gave the Bison a run for the money in a 27-16 loss.

North Dakota State had won its previous eight games by an average of 36 points, with the closest score being a 38-24 victory over Eastern Washington last January in the FCS national championship game. UC Davis earned enough respect to remain fourth in the FCS rankings instead of dropping with the loss.

The drop came this week. UC Davis fell to No. 12 after being humbled at home in a 45-20 loss to Montana, which replaced UC Davis in the top 10 after vaulting from No. 18 to No. 9. UC Davis had been in the top 10 since cracking it for the first time after rallying for a 44-37 victory over Idaho State last October.

This week also brings a long flight to Grand Forks for Saturday’s game at North Dakota, which lost 38-7 at North Dakota State on Sept. 7. By the time the Aggies come home, they will have flown 7,000 miles in three weeks to face two teams separated by 80 miles. At least they should be accustomed to jet lag by now.

A 25-point loss is not customary for UC Davis. Fingers can be pointed in several directions after the Aggies’ worst home defeat since a 34-6 loss to Southern Utah in 2015. Rankings meant nothing in those days with UC Davis finishing 2-9. They went 3-8 in 2016 and then 5-6 in 2017 in Dan Hawkins’ first season as head coach.

A 10-3 finish in 2018 raised the bar for the Aggies, who earned a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time. That makes last week’s loss much more difficult to swallow. Start with three turnovers, nine penalties, poor tackling and no sacks. UC Davis sacked Montana’s Dalton Sneed five times last October in overcoming an 18-point deficit for a 49-21 victory.

Gilliam and Thomas combined for 147 rushing yards and each scored a touchdown that day. Thomas scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 56-yard run with 10:59 to play. UC Davis got the ball back 69 seconds later when Sneed was sacked and lost a fumble at the Montana 14. Gilliam scored two plays later on a 4-yard run.

The Grizzlies were not as generous last Saturday. The Aggies did not have a rushing touchdown, extending their losing streak when they do not have one to six games. Gilliam and Thomas did not come close to Plough’s goal of combining for at least 40 touches. Gilliam had 18. Thomas finished with just eight. They combined to run for 75 yards, and Gilliam was held to a season-low 2.7 yards per carry. 

Learning more on Thomas would have made sense, but suggest that to Plough and he will explain that Thomas’ productivity is dependent on Gilliam. Thomas is 2 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Gilliam at 5-foot-11 and 215, but Plough said Thomas is more likely than Gilliam to score on any given play.

“We love when Ulonzo starts the drives because he has earned it. He’s going to get the ball more,” Plough said. “We look at Tehran in the middle of a drive when the defense is tired and maybe Ulonzo is a little tired. (Thomas is) as fresh as a daisy and they’re breathing really hard. We look at Tehran as more of a home-run type of back. If he gets in the open and gets to full speed, he’s going to go the distance.”

The longest run for Thomas in four games this season was 18 yards against Montana. He missed the Sept. 14 game against Lehigh with an injury. Plough figures it is a matter of time before Thomas busts loose. Saturday’s game at North Dakota would be as good a time as any. 

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.