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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.