Football fortifies bond of brothers

Isiah Love (right) is the Aggies’ third-leading tackler with 53 in his senior season.

Isiah Olave spent Thanksgiving Day in Columbus, Ohio of all places. The UC senior defensive back took advantage of the Aggies’ first-round bye in the FCS playoffs to make the trip with his parents and brother. Josh was available to go because his sophomore season at Azusa Pacific came to an end Nov. 17 with a fist-round loss in the Division II playoffs.

Josh is a cornerback and was a first-team selection to the All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference team after leading the conference in interceptions with five. That is four more Isiah has in his final campaign at UC Davis. Isiah could change that Saturday when UC Davis plays its first Division I playoff game by hosting Northern Iowa at 4 p.m.

Isiah Olave

There is no chance of Isiah matching his brother’s all-conference honor, although Isiah was a third-team selection in the Big Sky Conference. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Isiah ranks third for the Aggies in tackles with 53 and has held his own against taller receivers.

His youngest brother fits the description of a tall receiver because Chris is 6-1. Chris is also the reason why Isiah, Josh and their parents made the trip to Columbus. It was not so such for Thanksgiving as it was to hopefully watch Chris put his hands to good use for Ohio State in last Saturday’s showdown with Michigan.  And to their delight, Chris did just that and in more ways than one.

Chris Olave
Josh Olave

Two receptions and two touchdowns would have been nore than enough to make his family’s trip worthwhile. Chris added the whipped cream to their pumpkin pie by blocking a punt in the third quarter that the Buckeyes returned for a touchdown and a 34-19 lead on their way to a 62-39. The Wolverines had never allowed so many points. They can blame Chris for 21.

That their football schedules worked out for Isiah and Josh to watch Chris play made his breakout performance all the more special. “He has put all in the work and to show out at that level, I’m so proud of him,” Isiah said. “I’m always trying to help him out. He’s a smart guy. He gets it.”

Ohio State’s 11-1 record does not come as a surprise. That UC Davis is 9-2 and shared the Big Sky championship would surprise most everyone except Aggies head coach Dan Hawkins, his assistants and the players. This is Isiah’s fifth year at UC Davis after redshirting in 2016, and the Aggies won just seven games in the first three. They won five in 2017 after Hawkins returned to his alma mater and restored pride in the program.

“That 5-6 season gave us newfound confidence,” Isiah said. “That’s really helped us out this year. We worked our tails off in the summer. We all thought we had a shot to do something bigger.”

Aggie Stadium will be loaded Saturday when UC Davis takes aim at its first postseason victory since the Division II playoffs in 2002.

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Seldom-used senior earns respect

C.J. Spencer had 60 minutes of fame in 2015 when he threw for three touchdowns and ran for one as UC Davis rolled past Sacramento 35-21 in the Causeway Classic.

If it could only be 2015 again, if only for one November afternoon and one Causeway Classic. That would be plenty for C.J. Spencer, who would love to turn back time to when he started at quarterback for UC Davis.

Spencer did not come to Davis from Inderkum High School in 2014 to settle for playing quarterback only when the Aggies go to the Wildcat formation. He did not come to be a receiver or to contribute on special teams. His plan was to be the backup to junior Ben Scott in 2015 and then compete to be the starter in 2016.

The timeline accelerated, however, when Scott sustained a neck injury and missed the last three games in 2015. Spencer had a tough time in his first start, a 23-3 loss at Weber State, but he got it going in the second against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns in a 55-38 loss.

His numbers showed Spencer was capable of leading the offense even as a redshirt freshman. The only number that mattered to Spencer was the zero in the win column for the Aggies. Two starts, two losses, too bad. UC Davis was 1-7 with Scott starting in 2015, so no one expected Spencer to save a sinking ship.

Then came that one November afternoon, that one Causeway Classic at Sacramento State with the 2-8 Hornets facing the 1-9 Aggies. The game was meaningless to anyone not strolling the sidelines on Nov. 21, but Spencer approached it as an “American Idol” audition. If he could lead the Aggies to victory, he would make a much better case to unseat Scott in 2016 and spend three seasons in the spotlight.

UC Davis won 35-21 after jumping out to a 21-0 lead with Spencer passing for two touchdowns and running for one in the first half. He added his third touchdown pass in the third quarter and finished with 312 yards.

Consecutive 300-yard passing performances. Five touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last two starts. Spencer’s case to retain the job would have only been stronger if it had been injected with steroids.

Now it is 2018. Spencer took one snap last Saturday as the Aggies routed the Hornets 56-13 in the Causeway Classic, which was moved from Aggie Stadium to the University of Nevada to escape the smoke. The game was played at an alternate site, but Spencer spent most of it in a familiar location – the sideline.

Spencer’s last glimmer of hope came in 2016 when Scott graduated. It vanished once Jake Maier arrived. The Long Beach City College transfer proved he was worthy, throwing for 3,6698 yards and 26 touchdowns. At least Spencer caught five of Maier’s school-record 306 completions in brief duty at wide receiver.

Playing second fiddle to Scott was difficult for Spencer because Spencer believed he was every bit as capable of running the offense. “There were reasons why I didn’t start,” Spencer recalled. “Some of the reasons were right and some of them were wrong. I respected that, but I’m not going to say I agreed with it.”

Such is not the case with Maier. “I know I’m good and I can compete, but Jake’s at another level,” Spencer said. “I knew he’s a great quarterback. It’s kind of difficult to take, but at the end of the day we’re winning.”

Success has arrived at long last for the Aggies, who are 9-2 and shared the Big Sky Conference championship with Eastern Washington and Weber State. UC Davis is in the FCS playoffs for the first time and will host the winner of Saturday’s first-round game between Northern Iowa and Lamar  (Texas) on Dec. 1.

Winning has made it easier for Spencer to accept being a role player. He could have transferred or quit after Maier came aboard. He could have badmouthed the coaches and complained to teammates. His college career did not turn out as he had hoped, but there is more to football than playing time.

“I stuck around because these are my teammates.The bond with your teammates will last long after your collegiate career,” Spencer said. “The process was difficult for me. I’m not going to lie. At the same time, everybody has to face reality.”

What is real for Spencer is his teammates’ respect. “C.J.’s the ultimate Davis guy,” wide receiver Keelan Doss said. “What I mean by that is he’ll do whatever’s best for the team. To have that self-discipline to come out here and keep doing what you’re doing every single day knowing that you’re not necessarily in the spot you want to be, I can’t say enough good things about him.”

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More chills than thrills for UC Davis

Ulonzo Gilliam’s 46-yard touchdown run gave UC Davis a 10-0 lead Saturday, but Eastern Washington scored the next 21 points on its way to a 59-20 win in Cheney. The Aggies are 6-1 in the Big Sky  and share first place with Eastern Washington and Weber State. 

Jake Maier (above) was held without a touchdown pass for just the second time this season. Tehran Thomas (right) gets a lift from Justin Kraft (82) and Ramsey Hufford after his 69-yard touchdown run.
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UC Davis linebacker comes of age

Look beyond the UC Davis helmet and No. 34 jersey. Get past the career-high 13 tackles against Montana on Oct. 27 and subsequently being honored as the STATS FCS National Defensive Player of the Week. There is so much more to senior linebacker Mason Moe than will meet even the sharpest eye.

“Not many people know the story behind Mason Moe,” the 6-foot, 210-pound Moe said Oct. 31 after practice. Moe was it again Nov. 3 with six tackles and an interception as UC Davis thumped Northern Arizona 42-20 to improve to 6-0 in the Big Sky Conference and 8-1 overall.

Mason Moe deflects a pass intended for Northern Arizona’s Emmanuel Butler in the Aggies’ 42-20 victory. Moe had six tackles and an interception.

Let’s begin with his age. Moe turned 24 on Oct. 18. He is a 2012 graduate of Kahuku High School in his native Hawaii and as a senior helped  the Red Raiders win their sixth state championship. The title game was Moe’s last for two years. He opted to embark on a Mormon mission instead of trying to play football in college.

“It was a hard decision to make and I knew it would be hard for my family.They didn’t know if I would come back and want to play football,” Moe recalled. “You only get one day, which is Monday, to speak to your family and it’s through email. The only time you can Skype your family is on Mother’s Day and Christmas.”

His first year as a missionary was spent in Mexico. He then was sent to Long Beach. As soon as his service ended, he remained in California and searched for a junior college to continue his education play football. He landed at West Hills Coalinga College and quickly learned to live with the nauseating aroma of cows.

“That’s how you know you’re in Coalinga,” Moe quipped. “You get immune to it. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

As soon as Moe arrived in 2015, Robert Tucker resigned as head coach at West Hills Coalinga to take the same position at Los Angeles Valley College. Tucker is now the defensive coordinator at UC Davis, so it is not a coincidence that Moe is now playing for Tucker after being recruited by Tucker to join the Aggies.

Mason Moe

“This was my only (scholarship) offer,” said Moe, who took two classes in the summer of 2017 in order to have enough units to transfer. That extra work is now paying off. Moe is tackling the books as well as he does opposing ballcarriers and is on track to graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies.

Speaking of bachelors, Moe no longer thinks of himself as one. Moe and his girlfriend have started a family. The couple has a 2-year-old boy, Mason Jr., and Moe is also stepfather to his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son. There is more inside that helmet and jersey than a student-athlete. Moe has become a man in every sense of the word.

“I’ve got a family to feed,” said Moe, who hopes to accomplish that by playing professional football anywhere and any way he can.

Moe has more on his plate than most of his teammates. His journey thus far has been different than most of theirs. He still gets a kick out of being one of the guys, but he realizes as the elder statesmen that the young players will follow his lead.

“I’m old at age, but I’m young at heart,” Moe said. “When you’ve got freshmen who are 17 or 18 years old, they look at you as an example. You’ve got to be that figure for them.”

Moe has been that and more.

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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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