FLAGSTAFF Ariz. The UC Davis defense held its ground through the first half of a Big Sky Conference game at Northern Arizona University, but gave up a couple of big plays to the Lumberjacks in a 21-7 loss during NAU's homecoming.
The Aggies (3-5, 2-3) showcased a solid defense against a potent and balanced Northern Arizona offense, but UCD's offense struggled against the Lumberjacks' defense.
"Both teams played very, very hard, and it was a physical game with a lot of hard hitting," UCD head coach Bob Biggs said. "Defensively, we did a great job."
The first half looked like a contest to see which team could punt the best as the Aggies and Lumberjacks (6-0, 4-1) combined for 11 punts. The game remained scoreless until NAU scored on a 17-yard pass from Cary Grossart (Folsom High School) to Nick Cole with 1:16 left in the second quarter.
UC Davis didn't have any answers offensively as the Lumberjacks' top-rated Big Sky defense stymied junior quarterback Randy Wright. He completed just three passes for 16 yards and was sacked twice in the first half.
"We ran the ball well but couldn't sustain drives or get going," Biggs said. "We have three or four really good running backs who stepped in to keep each other fresh."
Marquis Nicolis, who led the Aggies with 85 yards on 13 carries, said the game became easier once he adjusted to the altitude of 7,000-plus feet in Flagstaff.
"The altitude had an effect on me, and it took me the first quarter to get used to it," he said. "Once I got going I didn't notice it, but it took some time to get used to it."
Nicolis had 50 of his 85 yards in the first half, mostly by running to the right side.
While Biggs said he was proud of how his defense played, Grossart threw for 167 yards and two touchdowns. His second scoring play was a 25-yard shovel pass to Zach Bauman midway through the third quarter.
Bauman also had 122 yards on 23 carries.
"We contained Bauman for the most part, but he got the shovel pass and got that big play," Biggs said.
Linebacker Byron Gruendl said the defense was prepared for the Lumberjacks' balanced attack and felt comfortable during the game.
"Coming out, we had a good plan from our coaches," Gruendl said. "This week we picked up on NAU's tendencies and we knew which plays they were running before they ran them. They just made some good plays, and we missed some tackles."
Despite all the punts, the Aggies kept the ball away from Austin Shanks, the nation's leading punt returner. He only had two returns for 18 yards in the game.
But Shanks earned his yards running the ball for the offense. He scored a 78-yard touchdown with 7:12 to play in the third quarter on an end around and finished with 87 yards on two carries.
The Aggies host Portland State (2-5, 1-3) at 2 p.m. next Saturday for parent and family weekend.