BOZEMAN, Montana — The 24-team FCS Playoffs don’t officially start for a few weeks. But No. 10 Montana State’s pivotal contest at UC Davis this weekend certainly will go a long way toward determining the postseason participants out of the Big Sky Conference this season.
“Every single game in November is consequential and big,” Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said a few days after leading MSU to its second straight victory to put the Bobcats at 7-3 entering the most crucial stretch of Choate’s fourth season. “But I don’t look at this game any different than last week’s game (a 45-14 win at Northern Colorado) or the week before (42-7 against Southern Utah in Bozeman).
“It’s a big game for both teams because it’s November football and we have a quality opponent in front of us. These are the games I like to coach in.
“And at the end of the day, I know this: it’s going to come down to the team that executes well and performs the most physical.”
Davis won 10 games, shared the Big Sky Conference title, earned a seed and a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs and defeated Northern Iowa in the second round of the FCS Playoffs last season. The Aggies lost All-American wide receiver Keelan Doss into the NFL but returned a collection of starters from last year’s title team.
A brutal schedule that played a pivotal factor in UCD’s 2-4 start. The Aggies were tied with Cal, 13-13, until three minutes to play in the third quarter at FBS Cal. Davis won two in a row over San Diego and Lehigh, respectively, before traveling to Fargo, North Dakota.
Davis looked tough and talented in taking No. 1 North Dakota State the distance in an eventual 27-16 loss. The following week, Montana trucked the No. 4-ranked Aggies 45-20.
“Really, (UM head coach Bobby Hauck) did a great job, out-coached me and they out-played us,” UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins said. “Really, they out-played us. I think as you go through growth as a program, I think handling expectations…and normally, our guys play with a lot of joy in their heart and have a lot of fun and for whatever reason, that game was the one game in my tenure here, the expectations got to us a little bit.”
Davis’ losing streak reached three straight in a 38-36 loss at North Dakota. Wins over Cal Poly and Southern Utah (combined 4-15 this season) got Davis back to .500.
If Davis won out, the Aggies would be 7-5. Because the five losses came against a Pac 12 school and three FCS teams currently ranked in the Top 5 of the polls, Davis’ strength of schedule would perhaps boost its resume. If the Aggies won two straight, they would also have victories over the No. 10 Bobcats and a Sac State team currently ranked No. 6 in the nation.
“We are still alive here,” Hawkins said. “We have to do some things for sure but you have a ranked Bobcat team and Sac State is playing ranked, they are ranked. We have to finish. And if we can finish, we deserve to be a playoff team.”
Montana State enters the game with a 7-3 record that includes a 4-2 mark in Big Sky play. The Bobcats lost two straight in October to raise the sense of urgency. MSU has blasted two subpar teams to begin November.
The Bobcats are 9-3 in the month of November under Choate. A win over the Aggies would likely give MSU a playoff spot for the second year in a row and the sixth time this decade. A loss would mean that Montana State would certainly need to defeat rival Montana for the fourth season in a row to get back to the postseason.
Standing in the way of those goals is a hungry UC Davis team picked to win the Big Sky Conference in the preseason.
“I think they are a complete team who has had a little bit of an up and down year but they hve played a tough schedule, man,” Choate said. “They opened up with an FBS opponent and then went and played North Dakota State, gave them all they wanted and gave Cal all they wanted in the opener.
“Why is probably a question they are asking, I’m sure but all they care about right now is how. How are they going to get the next win and move forward?”
Location: Davis, California
Founded: 1905 as a land-grant university adjacent to Davis, California, a quant farming town of 65,000 non-students in Yolo County 15 miles West of Sacramento. Davis is part of the University of California (UC) system and has the third-largest enrollment in the system behind only UC – Los Angles and UC- Berkeley. Davis has been labeled one of the “Public Ivies”, a publicly funded university considered to provide a quality of education comparable to those of the Ivy League.
Enrollment: 39,152 including 30,718 undergraduates and an endowment of $1.4 billion.
Stadium: Aggie Stadium a 10,743-seat multi-purpose stadium on campus built in 2005 and renovated in 2007. Eventual plans include the venue being built to hold 30,000 seats. The field within the stadium is named for Jim Sochor, UC Davis’ legendary coach who led the Aggies to 18 straight conference championships and a rare reign of Division II.
In four home games this season, UCD is averaging 9,804 fans per game. The Aggies drew a stadium record 11,194 in a 48-24 win over Cal Poly.
THE TEAM (3-3 in Big Sky play, 5-5 overall)
The Coach: Dan Hawkins, third season at UC Davis. The eccentric, smart head coach returned to his alma mater after an eight-year absence from college football. During his early days, Hawkins cut his teeth as a fullback for Jim Sochor in 1981 and 1982.
He joined Sochor’s staff in 1983, serving as a compelling branch in a coaching tree that also includes Washington head coach Chris Petersen, TCU head coach Gary Patterson, former USC head coach Paul Hackett and former Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti.
Hawkins’ first job as an offensive coordinator came at his junior college alma mater, Siskiyous CC between 1988 and 1991. In 1992, he joined Tim Walsh’s staff at Sonoma State as the defensive coordinator And in 1993, he landed his first head coaching job at Division III Willamette.
In Salem, Hawkins led the Bearcats to a 40-11 record that included three straight Northwest Conference titles to finish the run. Willamette advanced to the Division III Elite Eight in 1996 and lost in the D-III national title game in 1997.
From 1998 until 2000, Hawkins served as the offensive coordinator on Dick Koetter’s staff at Boise State, helping the Broncs to back-to-back 10-win seasons.
Between 2001 and 2005 with Hawkins as head coach, BSU won 53 of 64 games, including 37 out of 40 in Western Athletic Conference competition. Boise went 31-1 in league play, claiming four straight league championships Hawkins’ final four seasons at BSU. Two of the 11 total losses came in the final two bowl games.
In 2006, Hawkins ceremoniously took the Colorado job. After winning just 19 games in 58 tries and posting a 10-27 Big XII Conference record, he was unceremoniously fired in 2010.
He stayed away from college coaching for nearly a decade before returning to his alma mater. He did a stint as the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 2013, coached the United States National Team in 2005 and served as the OC of the Vienna Vikings in 2016, all the while working as a commentator for various college football coverage outlets.
Now he’s back at Davis and has the Aggies in the midst of an impressive turnaround. After a 5-6 finish in his first year, UC Davis won 10 games, including a playoff game, and shared its first-ever Big Sky title. This season, the Aggies have played one of the top schedules in the country and are 5-5 overall, including 3-3 in league play.
“Man, that guy has done a great job down there,” Choate said. “As an alum, taking a program he has a lot of pride in and passion for and really elevating it really quickly. You can see the investment they are making.”
THE OFFENSE – Players to watch
Jake Maier, quarterback, 6-0, 200, senior — The cerebral senior makes up for his average size and his average athleticism with the highest football IQ of any signal caller in the league. And despite the fact that he is only middle of the road (at best) when it comes to mobile quarterbacks in the Big Sky, Maier stands in the pocket as strong as any signal caller in the league.
“It starts primarily on offense with No. 15, a returning All-American, and deservedly so,” Choate said. “This kid is fun to watch. We didn’t play them last year but I got to watch him a lot on film.
“He’s a very accurate passer. He can thrown from a variety of arm slots, a variety of platforms, meaning he doesn’t have to have his feet set. He’s an adequate runner who runs more to throw but can hurt you with his feet in scramble situations. And he has a handful of targets.”
In 2017, Maier threw for 3,669 yards and 26 touchdowns on the way to earning Big Sky Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Long Beach City College. When Hawkins took over for Ron Gould, he hired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Plough. Together, the trio has devised an offense that Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said “they do more than I’ve ever seen,” before the Griz played Davis earlier this season.
Last season, Maier threw for 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns on the way to leading the Aggies to a share of the Big Sky title, a first-round bye in the playoffs and a playoff victory. The 10-win season helped Maier earn Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year honors.
This season, Maier has thrown for 3,057 yards (306 yards per game) and 27 touchdowns. He surpassed 10,000 yards passing for his career earlier this fall.
“The kid is one of the best I’ve seen in the country at any level,” Choate said. “He is a very, very good player.”
Ulonzo Gilliam, running back, 5-9, 185, sophomore — The last three seasons, including two under Hawkins, Keelan Doss was one of the most high-usage, productive players in the FCS. He caught 312 passes for 4,029 yards. He caught 115 and 118 passes as a junior and senior respectively.
Gilliam has replaced Doss’s high number of touches and surpassed that usage. He is the only tailback in the league with more than 200 carries (206) this season. He is the only player in the league with more than 1,000 yards rushing. And he also has caught 41 passes.
“A lot of what they do goes through the run game,” Choate said. “When they have played well, it’s started with the run because then the RPO is so much more effective with them, hitting some slants to receivers in space, Y-pop to the tight end.
“When their run game is rolling, this offense is very, very hard to stop.”
Gilliam is one of the best running backs in the league, part of a trio of tailbacks who took the league by storm as freshmen last season.
Josh Davis of Weber State finished third in the league with 1,362 yards and scored nine touchdowns for the co-league champions. He won the Jerry Rice Award as the nation’s top freshman. Isaiah Ifanse became the first Montana State freshman to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in a single season.
But Gilliam was the most polished and diverse of the trio. He piled up 976 rushing yards, 385 receiving yards and scored a team-high 17 touchdowns. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, 6.8 yards per catch on 57 receptions and nearly 105 yards from scrimmage each outing.
This season, he has 1,055 yards on the ground and nine rushing touchdowns. He is averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
Gilliam has rushed for more than 100 yards in four games this season, including a season and career-high 242 yards and two touchdowns last week.
Wesley Preece, tight end, 6-5, 238, senior — Over the last 33 games of Preece’s career, he has caught 24 touchdowns, including nine in each the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The towering, athletic Rocklin, California native has established himself as one of the top red-zone threats in the FCS.
Last season, Preece earned second-team All-American honors by catching 29 passes for 337 yards. He picked up of those yards on his career-long reception against the Griz. As a sophomore, he was Maier’s second-favorite target behind Doss with Harrell redshirting; Preece caught 36 passes for 568 yards. He was a third-team All-Big Sky selection.
This season, Preece has caught 33 passes for 404 yards and six touchdowns. He caught three of those touchdowns against North Dakota.
“He’s their security blanket, a big target at tight end,” Choate said.
THE DEFENSE — Players to watch
Nick Eaton, outside linebacker, 6-2, 215, redshirt freshman — Choate is a connoisseur when it comes to analyzes and breaking down the play of opposing defensive fronts. The former Power 5 defensive line coach always gives detailed, complimentary previews of each group.
So to hear Choate praise Eaton and the Aggie front comes with some gravitas.
“I would say Sac State and these guys have the best pass rush I’ve seen on tape,” Choate said. “That’s saying a lot. And No. 53, their Sam linebacker, moves around a little bit, was the conference defensive player of the week last week – I love the way this kid plays, man. He plays with juice, energy, plays hard, he’s a physical kid and he runs well.”
Eaton, a prep in-state product from just up the road in Rocklin. This season, taking over for All-Big Sky edge rusher Mason Moe has seemed natural for Eaton and has proved important for the Aggies.
He has earned two Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week twce this season, including last week after rolling up eight tackles and two sacks in a 45-28 win at Portland State.
This season, Eaton is fourth on the team with 54 tackles. His 6.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss lead the Aggies, the fourth and fifth-best totals, respectively, in the league
Eric Flowers, outside linebacker, 6-1, 215, senior — The former junior college transfer set the tone in Davis’ battle with North Dakota State, spearheading a surprisingly physical performance against the most physical team this decade in the FCS.
In Fargo, Flowers had nine tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and forced a fumble to lead a defense that allowed 16 first downs and 354 yards of total offense.
Flowers had 76 tackles and a tackle for loss during his first two seasons at Davis. He currently leads the Aggies with 64 total tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. H also has one of Davis’ eight interceptions.
Devon King, cornerback, 5-10, 165, sophomore — The hyper competitive and aggressive man-to-man cornerback earned Freshman first-team All-American honors from Hero Sports last season after starting 11 of 13 games as a rookie. He led the league with three forced fumbles and also earned two interceptions. He also piled up 49 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
This season, he’s again been lockdown. He is third on the team with 61 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, an impressive number for a defensive back. He also has a team-best three interceptions.
“No. 21 is a dangerous corner who is a ball-hawk who creates a lot of turnovers and is a guy you have to be aware of when you are throwing the ball,” Choate said.