DAVIS, Calif. — On the surface, it looks like the once-proud Aggies have taken a step back.
UC Davis has long been known as one of the finest public universites in the country. The Public Ivy was originally founded as the agricultural extension of Cal-Berkeley. The sprawling campus has nearly 35,000 students and the school has an endowment of $807 million.
UCD also has a proud tradition on the gridiron. The Aggies have won 29 conference titles dating back to 1929, including a college football record 19 straight between 1971 and 1990 under legendary head coach Jim Sochor. The College Football Hall of Famer won 156 games and posted a 92-5 record in the Northern California Athletic Conference. Sochor helped mentor his successor, former UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs along with former Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti, former USC head coach Paul Hackett, former Boise State and Colorado and current Montreal Allouettes coach Dan Hawkins and current Washington head coach Chris Petersen.
After moving to Division I in 2004, Biggs led Davis to Great West titles in 2005 and 2009. The Aggies joined the Big Sky Conference in 2012, Biggs’ final of 20 seasons at the helm for his alma mater.
In Ron Gould’s first season last fall, the Aggies put together a solid campaign. UCD posted a 5-3 record, its lone losses coming to the last three league champions. The Aggies fell to Montana, Montana State and Cal Poly.
In Gould’s second season, the Aggies have struggled as the campaign reaches its midpoint. Davis is still in search of its first Division I win. The Aggies are 1-4 with No. 11 Montana State coming to town on Saturday.
“I was hired to do a job and our goal is to compete for the Big Sky championship,” Gould said. “We are not there yet.”
A multitude of factors have played into Davis’ early-season struggles. The primary factor has been a trying schedule. The Aggies opened up on The Farm against No. 11 Stanford, a 45-0 loss. In Week 2, Davis downed Fort Lewis 52-17. Since then, it’s been tough sledding. A 49-21 loss at FBS Colorado State preceded a 37-14 los to No. 2 Eastern Washington at home. Last week, Davis’ offense continued to struggle in a 23-14 loss to Portland State. The Vikings limited the Davis ground attack to 44 yards and the Aggies mustered just 11 first downs.
“We’ve played a tough schedule, but we have tough teams coming up,” said UCD senior defensive end Marques Barron. “Montana State is just as tough as everyone else we’ve played. Every week, we come prepared to play the best team in the nation. This week, we hope to have a break through.”
After Saturday’s homecoming game against MSU, the Aggies still have to play at No. 7 Montana, at 2013 playoff qualifier Northern Arizona and at 2012 co-Big Sky champ Cal Poly. UCD also has home dates against Northern Colorado and the Causeway Classic, its annual rivalry game against explosive Sacramento State.
“The Big Sky, you are going to face a heavyweight fight every single week,” said Gould, who spent 16 seasons coaching running backs at Cal before taking his first head job last spring. “It doesn’t matter who you play, it’s going to be a heavyweight fight. You have to bring your hard hat because it’s going to be a battle. It has been this season and it still will be.”
Another key factor to UCD’s earl struggles has been a plague of injuries that has afflicted key players. Star running back Gabe Manzanares, the 2013 Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, has just 23 carries so far in his senior season. He suffered a foot injury in the spring that has been slow to heal. The Aggies lost senior linebacker Ryan Dimino to a season-ending injury. Senior center Jay Luchetti (hand), senior safety Charles Boyett (ankle) and senior linebacker Steven Pitts (unknown) have been in and out of the lineup with injuries as well. Each earned All-Big Sky honors in some fashion last fall.
“I don’t spend a lot of time talking about it or thinking about it,” Gould said. “We’ve had some injuries, but that’s not an excuse. It is what it is and we have to work through it. We aren’t caught up in whom we don’t have.”
A year ago, Gould played nine players from his first recruiting class. This season, seven more true freshmen have seen action. Keelan Doss (13 catches, 227 yards) is UCD’s leading wide receiver. Speedy wide receiver Jermale Jefferson is averaging 13 yards per carry on 15 carries and also has nine catches. Robert Taylor (five tackles, PBU) and Isiah Olave (seven tackles) have seen time in the cornerback rotation. Tight end Nolan Tooley and defensive linemen Jordan Hoyt and Grant Hilton are on the two-deep depth chart.
Redshirt freshman starting free safety Daryl Graham is the team’s second-leading tackler behind Pitts with 26 stops. Redshirt freshmen running back Justin Williams (110 yards, TD) and fullback Derek Balijeu (one receiving touchdown) have played significant snaps.
Davis also has 16 seniors, 12 who start.
Bringing in players who can compete at the Big Sky level early and survive in Davis’ rigorous academic environment simultaneously is a testament to Gould’s abilities as a recruiter.
“A great majority of the guys on our team are bright people,” said Boyett, whose brother John was a sixth round NFL draft pick out of Oregon in 2013. “I enjoy being around those types of people because they think in a positive way and they think of ways to succeed. I enjoy being around people who are sophisticated and have other goals in mind outside of football.”
The academic nature of the school shows up on film, MSU sophomore quarterback Dakota Prukop said. The defense is “solid and sound” and doesn’t make mistakes. The offense has struggled, but the team is plus-3 in turnover margin and is second in the squad is the second-least penalized team in the league.
“With the academic school UC Davis is, you know right off the bat that they will be discipline, solid team across the board,” said Prukop, whose father Tim played linebacker for Sochor in the 1980s. “They won’t have a bunch of penalties or mental errors. They are a smart group of dudes that will get the job done. We know they are better than their record shows.”
Photo by Wayne Tilcock (AggiePhoto.com) of UC Davis athletics.
Coach photo by Brooks Nuanez of Skyline Sports