Defense bends, refuses to break

Robert Tucker was more than willing to take the blame. A “somewhat risky” call by the UC Davis  defensive coordinator led to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo scoring a touchdown on its first possession Oct. 20. Cal Poly did what no team had done against UC Davis in seven games, and that includes Stanford.

Tucker’s defense returned to the field less than 90 seconds later after the UC Davis offense went three and out for the second time in as many possessions. Cal Poly followed by driving 51 yards in nine plays to put Alex Vega in position for a 41-yard field goal that gave the Mustangs a 10-0 lead.

Defensive coordinator Robert Tucker makes sure  he is heard during a recent practice.

This was not Stanford, which did not score Sept. 8 against UC Davis until its fourth possession. Cal Poly will never be mistaken for Stanford after going from leading UC Davis by 10 points to losing by 42.

Blame was so much easier for Tucker to swallow  after a 52-10 victory. In devising strategy for Cal Poly, Tucker warned his players that he might have to make a call or two that could leave them vulnerable. Cal Poly’s triple option offense can force opposing defenses to gamble far more than they want.

The call Tucker regrets came during Cal Poly’s first possession with the Mustangs facing third and-3 at UC Davis’ 35-yard line. Running back Joe Protheroe made the Aggies pay by breaking loose for a touchdown.

“The touchdown was really my fault,” Tucker admitted after practice Oct. 24. “Rather than live in the stuff we were doing really well during the week. I felt like we needed a negative (yardage) play. I called something different and it backfired on us. With our play calls, I told them that this one was somewhat risky.”

Such is the weekly quandary for Tucker, who must weigh the strategic risks against the possible rewards. Cal Poly poses a unique challenge in that the triple option is believed to be outdated and is difficult for UC Davis to simulate during practice. The Mustangs’ 302 rushing yards in a lopsided loss are proof.

“It was really just the speed of it all,” Tucker explained of Cal Poly’s first drive. “It was a lot faster on the field than it was in practice. I thought we did a lot of good things on that drive, but we were out of position by half a step. Once we adjusted to the speed, we were able to widen our edges out just a little.”

Vega’s field goal with 3:50 to play in the first quarter was the last hurrah for the home team. The Aggies pitched a shutout over the final three quarters. It was more of the same last Saturday as the  defense blanked Montana in the second half and allowed UC Davis to rally for a 49-21 victory in Missoula.

Roland Ocansey and the Aggies are raising the roof at 5-0 in the Big Sky and 7-1 overall.

As explosive as UC Davis has been on offense, its defense has provided its share of big plays. Linebacker Mason Moe and defensive end Roland Ocansey combined for one in the third quarter last Saturday by stopping Alijah Lee when Montana went for it on fourth-and-1 at the UC Davis 33-yard line.

The Aggies scored touchdowns on their next three possessions to pull ahead. Moe then forced a fumble that linebacker Cam Trimble recovered at Montana’s 14-yard line. Ulonzo Gilliam scored on a 4-yard run two plays later. Cornerback Devon King ended Montana’s ensuing possession by returning an interception 15 yards to the Montana 6. Quarterback Jake Maier scored two plays later.

King added his second interception with 7:03 to play, sending hundreds of Montana fans to the nearest exit. Moe finished with 13 tackles to take the team lead with 42. Linebacker Montell Bland is second with 38 despite not being a starter. Four of the Aggies’ 10 top tacklers do not usually start but play frequently.

Tucker once asked his defensive assistants to count how many players could legitimately start.  There are first- and second-stringers, but Tucker said his assistants showed there is not much difference.

“We have 25 guys we feel could be starters,” Tucker said. “We say 1’s and 2’s in practice, but we really have 25 starters. We want them to prepare as starters and think of themselves as starters.”

The Aggies are 5-0 in the Big Sky Conference and 7-1 overall. Tucker can rest assured they are prepared.

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