The Aggies of UC Davis navigated a murder’s row to open their 2015 football season, playing a pair of FBS schools before facing three of the Big Sky Conference’s best to begin league play.
Despite staying within two scores of Nevada, trailing by just a field goal with six minutes to play against South Dakota, rallying to within a touchdown at North Dakota and trailing by just eight points to perennial Big Sky power Montana, Davis found themselves staring an six-game losing streak square in the face.
The stretch proved to be a challenging one both within the moment of competition and also with the repercussions Davis faced the rest of the way. The Aggies lost four starters to injury against Hawaii, two more against Nevada and three more against North Dakota. Still, Davis shook off its 0-5 start to spring one of the most surprising upsets of the 2015 Big Sky season with a 38-24 win over Northern Arizona.
The victory over NAU proved to be just a flash as the injuries incurred early affected UCD for the rest of the season. Junior quarterback Ben Scott went down against Southern Utah in the midst of a four-game losing streak, just another in a long line of injuries that ultimately resulted in a 2-9 campaign in Ron Gould’s third season as UCD head coach.
“We lost four guys in Hawaii, a guy in Reno, lost three guys at North Dakota,” Gould said in an interview in June. “We got banged up in that stretch. The thing I was pleased with is the resiliency of this team and how they responded to being faced with adversity. That’s one thing you saw week in and week out: us competing. But you don’t get a prize for finishing second. It’s about whether or not you can win games. We fell short.”
Some weeks, Davis looked competitive, reminiscent of the team that won five Big Sky games in Gould’s first season at the helm in 2013. The Aggies trailed Montana 20-13 in the fourth quarter before losing 27-13. UCD held NAU to seven second-half points in a 38-24 victory, allowing the Lumberjacks their second-lowest point total of an otherwise explosive offensive 2015. Davis trailed eventual Big Sky champion Southern Utah 7-6 at halftime before surrendering 27 unanswered second-half points.
But other weeks, Davis looked completely outmatched. The Aggies fell behind 42-0 in the first half of a 56-27 loss at Northern Colorado. Davis mustered just 174 yards of total offense, including just 22 yards on the ground in a 23-3 loss at Weber State. The Aggies gave up 491 yards rushing and 31 first downs in a 55-38 loss to Cal Poly.
“What it really comes down to at the end of the day is consistency. If you can compete with a team until the fourth quarter and then you lose in the fourth quarter, they deserve to win,” UC Davis senior linebacker Russell Reeder said at the Big Sky Kickoff in Park City, Utah in July. “We have to be able to finish on our end. We have been competitive but that’s no excuse to give us a pat on the back. We need to learn how to finish.
“It definitely lit a fire under everyone. When you go through a season like that, everyone is willing to work.”
UC Davis enters the 2016 season returning 10 players with starting experience and eight more returning starters from its defense. Of the returning starters on offense, only four — senior center Kevin Gavigan, junior right guard Julian Bertero, senior right tackle Christian Schneider, senior wide receiver Chris Martin — started all 11 games. Scott missed the final month with a season-ending injury. Senior tailback Manusamoa Luuga was largely healthy but did miss a start while junior fullback Derek Baljeu missed two starts as did senior tight end Nehemiah Winston.
Davis lost All-Big Sky wide receiver Ramon Vargas seven games into the season with a broken foot. Keelan Doss, a smooth speedster who contributed as a true freshman in 2014, tore his ACL during fall camp and did not play last season.
Defensively, senior tackle Inoke Raikadroka started all 11 games, as did safety Darryl Graham and cornerback Patrick Wells. But safety Keelan Culbertson went down for the season against Hawaii. The rest of the defensive line and linebackers struggled with injuries, including season-ending injuries to Reeder and Brady Stibi.
“A huge emphasis was that everyone is ready to go in when their number is called because that’s what absolutely killed us last year,” Reeder said. “We felt like we had a really strong 22 and then when starters started to fall, that’s when we lost playmaking ability.”
Ask to any coach in the Big Sky about UC Davis’ defensive scheme and phrases like “sound” and “discipline” and “always get lined up correctly” will be commonplace. Davis is known as one of the premier academic institutions not only in the Big Sky but in the United States. The complexity of the Aggies’ schemes aids its players but experience in grasping the concepts is key.
“That’s a huge part of it as well,” Reeder said. “We had a really complicated scheme that really benefited the guys who understood it well in a lot of different ways. That’s where it comes into play where it hurt us when younger guys have to step into a complicated playbook. That’s something we are really working at this off-season and playing less like robots and so concerned with what we need to do as far as assignment and really allowing our guys play. We’ve made specific changes to allow that to happen.”
Two years ago, Scott looked poised to be a breakout star. In his first career start, he threw for 379 yards and four touchdowns in a 77-37 loss to Montana State. He threw for 1,734 yards and 19 touchdowns in just seven starts, building chemistry with Vargas that looked like a promising glimpse of the future.
Last season, Davis’ offense was much less dynamic, averaging 3.5 yards per rush and managing just 121 rushing yards per outing despite running the ball seven more times than attempting to pass.
“We have to continue to be violent in the run game and that’s the thing that is going to allow us to throw the ball,” Gould said. “We need consistent play out of our quarterbacks. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ben Scott or C.J. (Spencer), we have to see consistency in terms of decision-making. They have done a great job of getting us to the right play. Now we have to execute.”
Gould stopped short of saying the 6-foot-3, 203-pound Scott is the incumbent starter entering his senior season. Spencer, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, started the last three games for Davis in 2015, throwing for more than 300 yards against Cal Poly and Sacramento State.
Luuga, Justin Williams, Josh Kelley and Mitchell Layton all return with experience in the back field and the Aggies lose just one starter — honorable mention All-Big Sky left tackle Parker Smith — from along the offensive front.
Defensively, Gould likes the veteran mindset brought by Raikadroka, a four-year starter, along with Reeder and Stibi leading the linebacker corps. The safeties have experience but UCD’s cornerbacks took a hit with the indefinite suspension of Wells stemming from pending domestic violence charges.
The Big Sky Conference expanded in 2012, adding Davis, Cal Poly, Southern Utah and North Dakota. Last season, UND narrowly missed the playoffs but posted a 7-4 record that included five league wins. In 2013, Southern Utah made the playoffs for the first time in school history and last fall claimed the school’s first Big Sky title. In 2012, Cal Poly shared the Big Sky crown. Among the new additions to the league, only UC Davis hasn’t tasted success. The Aggies have won 11 games in their first four years in the league, something Reeder hopes changes this fall.
“We have to shake off a losing season and come out with confidence,” Reeder said. “We know we have the ability to beat anyone in this conference.”
Photos courtesy of UC Davis Athletics – Wayne Tilcock, Davis Enterprise. All Rights Reserved.