College Sports

After a rough start, UC Davis’ defense makes sudden impact

UC Davis prepares for Cal Poly, potent triple option

UC Davis defensive back Keleen Culberson explains the challenges of facing one of the nation’s top triple option teams in Cal Poly and the excitement of playing in a rivalry game after practice Oct. 19, 2016 at Aggie Stadium.
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UC Davis defensive back Keleen Culberson explains the challenges of facing one of the nation’s top triple option teams in Cal Poly and the excitement of playing in a rivalry game after practice Oct. 19, 2016 at Aggie Stadium.

It’s been an amazing transformation for the UC Davis defense.

For the first five weeks, teams ran roughshod over the Aggies as they allowed nearly 46.8 points a game, ranked second to last in the Football Championship Subdivision in yards allowed per game (547.8) and were 1-4.

But UCD’s defense has made a massive improvement in the past two weeks, a 24-3 loss Oct. 8 at Southern Utah without injured Aggies quarterback Ben Scott and a 34-21 homecoming win over Northern Colorado with Scott back under center Saturday at Aggie Stadium. The once-porous defense held those opponents to an average of 264.5 yards, including 90.0 rushing.

The Aggies produced eight of their 13 sacks in those two games and, with Isiah Olave’s late fourth-quarter interception to ice the win over Northern Colorado, have forced 12 turnovers, one more than all of last year.

“I’ve enjoyed practice and games lately watching the D-line, the linebackers and secondary guys all be on the same page,” UCD coach Ron Gould said. “With that, you can see the confidence growing and their ability to go out and play physical and fast. Hats off to our coaches and especially the players for doing an unbelievable job.”

The metamorphosis comes at a good time for the Aggies (2-5, 1-3). They will play one of the best FCS offensive teams in the nation at No. 17 Cal Poly (4-2, 2-1) on Saturday in the annual Battle for the Golden Horseshoe.

Cal Poly ranks No. 2 nationally in rushing yards per game (352.5) and No. 5 in total offense (506.7) while playing in a run-oriented triple-option offense that is orchestrated by former Folsom High star quarterback Dano Graves.

Gould credits improved communication, coordination, discipline and execution for reducing the number of the big plays and long touchdowns the Aggies yielded earlier in the season. But Cal Poly’s unique offense will test UCD’s defense.

“With those guys, it’s run, run and run as they try to lull you to sleep,” Gould said. “Then they’ll throw the ball, and it’s usually a deep pass. So the right hand better know what the left hand is doing every play, or you are going to be in trouble.”

Aggies defensive coordinator Bert Watts made two changes after the Aggies’ 63-30 loss Oct. 1 at No. 3 Eastern Washington on Oct. 1.

Senior Zach Jones was moved from linebacker to safety, and senior Keleen Culberson moved from safety to cornerback. The heady, physical Jones was back in his old position barking out audibles while serving as a second coach on the field.

Culberson gave the Aggies a physical presence they were lacking at cornerback.

“Those moves definitely were instrumental,” Gould said. “Keleen was playing well at safety, but we really needed him to bring that mentality of stopping the run at corner. He can come up and play physical, but he’s also athletic enough to play one-on-one against outside receivers.”

Culberson has been a safety throughout his career at UCD but said the transition wasn’t tough because he played cornerback at Santiago High School in Corona.

“The switch over wasn’t huge, mentally,” said Culberson, who had 15 tackles – 14 solo – and two pass breakups in the past two games. “I knew what the assignments were. It’s just been little technique things.”

The Aggies also got a boost with the return of junior linebacker Ryan Bua from injury and the maturation of redshirt freshmen Christian Leota and Nas Anesi filling in for injured veteran linebackers Russell Reeder and Brady Stibi. Three underclassmen also are contributing on the line: sophomore Anthony Baumgart, redshirt freshman Brandon Jamison and true freshman Bryce Rodgers. Jamison leads the Aggies with 3 1/2 sacks.

UCD’s spirited defensive play hasn’t been lost on Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh.

“The desire and heart they are playing with is fun to watch as a football coach,” Walsh said. “Any time a team plays as hard as they do and is doing the things they are doing, that’s basically the way the game is supposed to be played.”

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

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