With one win between them through the first half of Big Sky Conference play, Sacramento State and UC Davis have spent the past two weeks looking at what it will take to finish their final four games on an upswing.
“We did some self-reflection to find out what we’re really good at, what we need to get better at and what we need to throw in the landfill,” said Sac State coach Jody Sears. “At the same time, we used the time to get our bodies healthy.”
UC Davis coach Ron Gould said the time off – the Aggies’ second bye week of the season – enabled his team to focus on trying to be more consistent.
“We’re looking to have a complete game – we’ve had too many lulls,” Gould said of his team’s 1-6 record (0-4 in conference). “The focus has to be there through every quarter, every play. That’s been the emphasis.”
UC Davis, tied for last place with Weber State in the 13-team conference, will host Northern Colorado (2-6, 1-4). The Bears have lost their past three Big Sky games, including a 46-12 decision last Saturday in Greeley, Colo., to much-improved Idaho State that snapped the Bengals’ 48-game road losing streak.
Sac State (4-4, 1-3) travels to No. 12 Montana (5-3, 3-1), the perennial Big Sky power, which got knocked out of the conference unbeaten ranks 41-21 last Saturday by Cal Poly, the winner of four in a row.
Montana’s loss nearly mirrored Sac State’s 56-27 homecoming loss the week before to Cal Poly. Montana was tied with Cal Poly 14-14 at halftime before the Mustangs’ triple-option run attack wore down the Grizzlies in the second half.
Sac State trailed Cal Poly 21-20 at halftime before being outscored 21-0 in the third quarter.
Grizzlies coach Mick Delaney said his team’s defense “disintegrated” in the second half as Cal Poly, the Football Championship Subdivision rushing leader, ran for 421 yards. He said his team must tackle better against Sac State, which has one of the best passing offenses in the conference and is No. 9 in the FCS in scoring offense (39.3 points per game).
“It’s more of the same in a different form,” Delaney said of facing the Hornets. “(Garrett) Safron is as good a quarterback as there is in the conference.”
Sac State has never won in football-mad Missoula, where crowds of 25,000 stuff the stadium and where the grandstands are only a few yards from the visiting team’s benches.
The Hornets are 1-17 all-time against Montana but have played well in the past three meetings. Sac State fell 28-25 in Missoula in 2010, beat the Grizzlies 42-28 at Hornet Stadium in 2011 and suffered a gut-wrenching 51-48 overtime home loss last season (the two teams did not meet in 2012).
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t play with a lot of confidence,” Sears said. “We’re going into one of the best environments in college football.”
Sears said the Hornets must reduce their penalties and improve in takeaways. They are second to last in the conference in both categories, part of the reason the Hornets allow more points (49.2 per game) and total yards (558 per game) than any other Big Sky team.
“We’ve been giving up too many big plays,” Sears said.
The defense suffered a big blow when middle linebacker Darnell Sankey, the team’s tackles leader, suffered a knee injury in the third quarter against Cal Poly. Sankey won’t play against Montana but hasn’t been ruled out for the season, Sears said.
UC Davis gained some confidence by playing well in Missoula two weeks ago in a 42-28 loss.
Sophomore quarterback Ben Scott had another strong performance in an otherwise struggling Aggies offense. In his two starts, Scott has thrown for 636 yards and eight touchdowns while the Aggies have averaged 502 total yards and 32.5 points per game.
UCD is facing an injury-decimated Northern Colorado team that has been unable to build on its 24-17 upset of Northern Arizona on Oct. 4. But Gould said the Bears are dangerous defensively. They have intercepted 14 passes, third best in the FCS.
“Their secondary guys have a lot of speed and do a great job of covering and taking balls away,” Gould said.
Defensive back Kyle Griffin leads the Bears with four interceptions, including one he returned 84 yards for a touchdown in the Northern Arizona win. But coach Earnest Collins Jr. laments the number of injuries his team has suffered defensively in recent weeks.
“Our front seven has been hurting,” Collins Jr., said.
UCD’s defense was in a similar situation earlier in the season, but senior free safety Charles Boyett, who missed four games with an ankle injury, played against Montana and had six tackles.
Gould said senior linebacker Steven Pitts, who has missed the past two games because of an ankle injury, is expected to play against the Bears.
“The bye has been good in terms of getting some of our horses back,” Gould said.
UC Davis is 5-1 all-time against Northern Colorado, including a 34-18 win last season as Aggies tight end Taylor Sloat, now on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad, caught two touchdown passes.
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