It was played some three hours away, in a different state, under a clear, crisp blue sky.
The Causeway Classic has offered up a full menu of great games and great oddities since 1954. This might be the topper.
For the first time in the 65-year history of the rivalry, it was not contested in Yolo County or Sacramento. Due to unhealthy air from the devastation of the Butte County fire that leveled the town of Paradise, Reno’s sparkling Mackay Stadium was the host venue on Saturday afternoon, a virtual 11th-hour assist to save this season’s game.
By the look of things, UC Davis might have rolled in this regular-season finale if it were played on a patch of dirt at the banks of the Sierra Nevada or in the parking structure of a nearby casino, perhaps, fittingly, the Circus Circus.
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The Aggies crushed Sacramento State 56-13 and now stand at a robust 9-2, the program’s best showing since going 9-3 in 2002.
A crowd of 2,482 made the trek to Reno. Some $5,400 was raised for those in need from the Camp Fire, where some 1,100 people remain unaccounted for.
At 7-1, UCD secured a share of the Big Sky Conference championship, the first banner of any league affiliation since 2009 for the storied program. Now the Aggies await news of their next game, as the FCS selection of playoff teams is Sunday morning (televised on ESPNU at 9:30 a.m.).
UCD expects that its pedigree warrants a home game Saturday at Aggie Stadium, or even a bye, the losses this fall coming to Stanford and longtime Big Sky powerhouse Eastern Washington.
“I do!” UCD coach Dan Hawkins said with emphasis when asked if his team was playoff ready. He raved at how UCD was able to secure the Reno venue on such short notice, of “rallying the troops” and answering the bell to such unusual circumstances.
“No one blinked,” Hawkins said of the situation. “Our thoughts and sympathies go to (those in the Camp Fire), people who lost everything, a total tragedy. Seems trivial to play football.”
But playing football with those from Paradise in mind is important, too, Hawkins and UCD players said, including quarterback Jake Maier and receiver Keelan Doss. Those are two of the most spectacular skill players and classy leaders in Aggies history.
Maier passed for a career-best 478 yards and four touchdowns, and ran for two scores. He completed 13 consecutive passes in the first half for 181 yards as UCD had 452 yards (and a season-best 691 for the game). Doss had a career-high 16 catches for 205 yards and two touchdowns.
He said this season and this game “validated” every reason why he spurned any NFL draft riches last spring to return to college for one final go.
“Just a great feeling,” Doss said. “To have seasons of 2-9 and 3-8 (and 5-6 last season) to now, it means the world.”
This has become one of the most memorable seasons in the 100-year history of the program. From the glory of winning 20 consecutive conference championships, ending in 1987, to the struggles of transitioning from Division II to D-I, the Aggies have barreled back onto the national scene, led by their spirited second-year coach.
Hawkins was an Aggies fullback in 1981 and ’82 who got his coaching start at his alma mater. He spoke glowingly of the pride of being an Aggie, what it means, his shirt soaked from a celebratory Gatorade bath.
“I can’t say enough about coach Hawkins and what he’s done,” Doss said.
Saturday marked the program’s 510th victory. UCD has now won 31 conference titles, the first coming in 1929, and the Aggies now can add their 21st playoff season and first at the Division I FCS level.
Sac State limped home at 2-8 and 0-7 in the Big Sky, a far cry from its seven-win 2017 season that included a program-best 6-2 showing in conference play.
The Hornets stalled out this season under the avalanche of injuries and a defense that could not slow opponents. Sac State’s senior night last week was canceled due to smoky air. It’s been that sort of season.
UCD led 35-10 at the half on the strength of Maier’s 77-yard touchdown strike to Jared Harrell, his own scoring runs of 1 and 9 yards and a 13-yard TD to Doss, who now has 100 receptions on the season for 1,049 yards.
Doss lauded his passer, saying, “The dude is the best quarterback in the country, not just the Big Sky Conference.” Maier returned praise, saying Doss is the best receiver in the land.
Aggie pride, right to the core.