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 Cal Poly poses a unique challenge in that the triple option is believed to be outdated and is difficult for UC Davis to simulate during practice.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.

Aggies save best for last in overtime victory

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier completes a pass to wide receiver Jared Harrell on Saturday despite having Idaho State’s Paea Moala on his back. Maier passed for 382 yards and a career-high five touchdowns as the Aggies overcame a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter for a 44-37 overtime victory. UC Davis is the only unbeaten team in the Big Sky Conference at 3-0.

Written out? UC Davis tight end erases doubt

Wesley Preece would have likely won the Best Supporting Actor award in 2017 if UC Davis staged a football version of the Academy Awards. As wsenior ide receiver Keelan Doss was stealing the show last season by catching 115 passes for 1,499 yards, Preece had a team-high nine touchdown receptions at tight end.

A nomination for the 2018 sequel would have been unlikely for Preece after one month. The junior went from catching at least two passes in each of 11 games last year to having just four receptions in the first four games this season. And three of those four were in the season opener Aug. 31 at San Jose State.

With his hands so idle, Preece could have raised one and asked why he is being written out of the script. Little has changed for Doss, who had 32 receptions in the first four games, so what gives with Preece? When quarterback Jake Maier calls the shots, Preece is difficult to overlook at 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds.

Tight end Wesley Preece, a Rocklin High graduate, went from catching one pass in three games to three touchdown receptions in one game.

Maier has had eyes for other receivers this season, however. Saturday’s 49-36 victory at Northern Colorado was the fourth consecutive game in which UC Davis had at least 10 players catch a pass. The Aggies did not reach double digits in 2017 until their fourth game, and that was only time they did so last season.

A growing cast makes it difficult for offensive coordinator Tim Plough to spread the wealth without a player or two settling for less. And even when Plough creates the right mix, an opponent’s defense can sack it.

“It’s not like (Preece) has diminished in our game plan,” said Paul Creighton, the tight ends coach. “It’s that teams have done things to take (Doss) and (Preece) out of the game plan. We watch a team on film and then they come out to play us and they have a different game plan because of (Doss) and (Preece).”

Whatever Northern Colorado’s strategy was, it did not work. Doss caught 11 passes  for 161 yards and a touchdown. Preece has his second career hat trick by turning three of his four receptions into touchdowns.

So much for Preece being written out and off. He leads the Aggies in touchdown receptions with four. Doss, sophomore wide receiver Jared Harrell and freshman running back Ulonzo Gilliam each have two.

It will be interesting to see what Idaho State’s defense will do to contain Doss and Preece when the Bengals visit Davis at 4 p.m. Saturday. Preece will be ready for anything and take what comes his way. Head coach Dan Hawkins has preached for the players to focus on the puzzle instead of a piece or two.

“Coach Hawk changed the culture here,” said Preece, a 2016 Rocklin High School graduate. “so it is more about the team than the individual player. If we’re winning by 30 points and I don’t get a catch, I don’t care. If you take me away or you take away (Doss), then we’ve got Jared Harrell and Khris Vaughn.”

The Aggies also have Gilliam,who might be the best back UC Davis has had in recent years. He has rushed for a team-high 334 yards and six touchdowns. Gilliam has also earned an invitation to the passing party and is second to Doss in receptions with 21. Doss now has 43.

Preece deserves some credit for Gilliam’s productivity because he has worked to become a better blocker. When Preece is not targeted by Maier, he contributes to the offense by doing the dirty work of blocking.

“Look at tight ends in the NFL and they’re all good receivers.” Creighton said. “What separates the good ones from the great ones is being an asset in the run game. That is something (Preece) has spent a lot of time working on. He focuses on what he needs to get better at 100 percent of the time and never fixates on what he’s good at. Sometimes, it’s almost to a fault. It’s like you have to tell him that he’s pretty damn good.”

Lack of height, but no shortage of heart

Five-foot-10 Devon King scoops a fumble on a lateral, but it was later ruled an incomplete pass.
With a cast on his hand, 5-foot-9 Erron Duncan tries to tackle 6-5 Kaden Smith.

 

Five-foot-10 Isaiah Thomas jumps for joy after an interception in the first quarter.
Five-foot-10 Isiah Olave does everything he can to contend with 6-7 tight end Colby Parkinson.