Young line works fine for UC Davis

Coach Tim Keane huddles with his offensive linemen during Saturday’s FCS playoff game against Northern Iowa. UC Davis won 23-16 to advance to the quarterfinals.

Tim Keane has been on his planet long enough to know quite a few folks. What the UC Davis offensive line coach does not know is why several of them decided to send him a text message  on Nov. 20. The messages were eerily similar in that each made reference to the 13 football coaches in the Big Sky Conference and how those men made their the all-conference selections.

UC Davis was well represented with quarterback Jake Maier being named the Offensive Player of the Year  and wide receiver Keelan Doss being the selected to the first team for the second time. Linebacker Mason Moe, defensive back Vincent White and tight end Wes Preece were second-team selections. Defensive back Isiah Olave, wide receiver Jared Harrell and running back Ulonzo Gilliam were named to the third team. Running back Tehran Thomas, return specialist Namane Modise and punter Dan Whelan earned honorable mention.

A school-record 11 honorees for the Aggies makes it easy to under why Keane was bombarded with messages after the All-Big Sky selections were revealed.  Congratulations were in order for second-year head coach Dan Hawkins and each member of his staff. The messages that Keane received were more snippy than congratulatory, however.

Freshman Jake Parks provides protection for quarterback Jake Maier against Northern Iowa.

Keane was not all bothered that one of his offensive linemen was not honored, but it sure seemed like quite a few of friends were. After all, Maier was sacked just five times in eight Big Sky games. That matched Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for the fewest sacks allowed in the conference even though UC Davis had 246 more passing attempts.

“Maybe it’s just that our offensive line is so good,” Keane said, “that none of them stand out.”

UC Davis shared the Big Sky championship with Eastern Washington and Weber State. Eastern Washington had all five of its starting offensive linemen honored, and Weber State had three. UC Davis did not get as much a pat on the back for an offensive or defensive lineman. Others can be upset about that, but Keane put it in perspective after the text tsunami.

“It was surprised by how many text messages I got. It kind of caught me off guard,” Keane said. “My response is that in the last two years we’ve had the Offensive Player of the Year in the conference. What better compliment for an offensive line than two years in a row having the top offensive player in the conference (Doss won in 2017). It all starts with those five guys.”

Credit will come in time for sophomores Colton Lamson and Kooper Richardson, redshirt freshman Connor Petek and true freshman Jake Parks. Nine of the 11 offensive starters for UC Davis in Saturday’s 23-16 victory over Northern Iowa will return in 2019. Doss and left guard Ramsey Hufford will depart as seniors. A 10-2 record in 2018 might be just the beginning of winning for the Aggies, who will travel to face Eastern Washington in the FCS quarterfinals.

Keane was an offensive lineman at UC Davis from 2003 to 2006 and started at center in his last two seasons. He can speak from experience in acknowledging that obscurity comes with the job description of a lineman. Keane prefers it that way. So do his linemen, especially since Keane said none of them has raised an eyebrow over the all-conference selections.

 “Those guys are blue collar,” Keane said. “They live in the shadows. They don’t want any credit.”

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Who will have hot hand in playoffs?

Eli Dunne has bounced back for Northern Iowa after being benched in the Sept. 1 opener, a 26-23 loss to Montana. UC Davis mauled Montana 49-21 on Oct. 27.

Mark Farley chuckled when informed in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon that the current temperature in Davis was 62. The Northern Iowa football coach got the last laugh by replying  “It’s 72 in the dome.”

Farley’s Panthers will not have the advantage of playing in the climate-controlled comfort of the UNI Dome on Saturday, however. At least they will be able to go outside to practice in Aggie Stadium on Friday as they prepare to face UC Davis in the FCS playoffs. And even with a slight chance of rain, Davis will be far more hospitable than the subfreezing temperatures outdoors in Cedar Rapids.

Jake Maier has thrown for 3,387 yards and 31 touchdowns as a junior for UC Davis.

Farley is not the meteorologist, but he believes there will be a fair amount of heat as soon as the game kicks off at 4 p.m. He expects the outcome will be decided by which quarterback has the hot hand. Although Farley gushed over UC Davis junior Jake Maier,  the Offensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky Conference, he is confident senior Eli Dunne will rise to the occasion.

“Their quarterback is a winner,” Farley said of Maier. “He seems to make plays at the most critical times. He brings the energy to that football team from what I see. The guy who makes their whole thing turn is their quarterback.”

Maier has turned his right arm loose since arriving at UC Davis in 2017.  He made a name for himself in 2016 at Long Beach City College, where he threw for 3,689 yards and 38 touchdowns after wasting 2015 as a redshirt in Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. Maier wasted no time last year in winning a starting job with the Aggies and was honored as the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year after passing for 3,669 yards and 26 touchdowns.

This season has been more of the same for Maier, who has thrown for 3,387 yards and 31 touchdowns, but UC Davis is breaking new ground like a rototiller. The Aggies shared the Big Sky championship and are in the FCS playoffs for the first time in 12 years as a Division I program. Whenever this season ends, the 2018 edition of the Aggies might well stake a claim as the best team in the program’s 100-year history.

Dunne’s career at Northern Iowa has been far more conventional. He redshirted in 2014, played in four games as a backup in 2015, started four games in 2016 and then became the full-time starter as a junior in 2017. Just when it seemed Dunne had earned job security, he was benched at halftime of the 2018 opener at Montana with Northern Iowa trailing 26-0. Farley had no choice but to go with senior Colton Howell after Dunne completed just five of 20 passes for 27 yards in the first half of what turned into a 26-23 loss.

The tables turned the following week at Iowa when Howell started and struggled. Dunne got the call in the second half with the Panthers trailing 21-0 and threw two touchdown passes in the 38-14 loss.  Those 14 points were not the only reason Farley decided to go back to Dunne as the starter. Farley was impressed with how Dunne handled his benching by learning not to takes tarting for granted.

“(Dunne) took it the way you would want him to take it,” Farley said. “He had to earn his position back. He had to turn to himself to fix what was wrong. It’s not how old you are, how many games you’ve started and what you did last week. You’ve got to be productive on Saturday.”

Montana is the one common opponent for UC Davis and Northern Iowa in 2018. Like the Panthers, the Aggies trailed by double digits at halftime against the Grizzlies. Unlike Dunne, Maier turned it loose in the second half  by throwing for three touchdowns and running for one as UC Davis rallied for a 49-21 victory.

It would be safe to say Farley knows that all too well.

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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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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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