As time wound down with his Aggies offense in victory formation, coach Dan Hawkins pointed to the UC Davis logo on his blue cap, his grin as wide as the Causeway. Aggies Pride is alive and well at UC Davis, and the Aggies have won on the national level again.
At home Saturday, UC Davis won its first NCAA Football Championship Subdivision game 23-16 over Northern Iowa. It was the first playoff victory since 2002, when the then-Division II Aggies beat Central Washington 24-6.
The Aggies advance to the FCS quarterfinals Dec. 8 against Eastern Washington, which beat Nicholls State 42-14 on Saturday.
UC Davis entered the game as the third-best passing offense in the nation, averaging 328.1 yards per game. Quarterback Jake Maier and receiver Keelan Doss have rewritten large swaths of the school record book, but it was the Aggies’ defense and an emerging running game that knocked back the Panthers’ upset bid.
The defense had two interceptions and forced three Northern Iowa field goals after the Panthers had lengthy drives.
Tehran Thomas had 87 yards rushing and Ulonzo Gilliam had 52 plus a 2-yard scoring run in the third quarter to keep the Panthers’ defense from getting its hands on Doss. Maier finished 28 for 42 for 310 yards. He threw two interceptions.
“The way we won, it wasn’t in maybe the typical fashion as we have in the past,” Hawkins said. “I thought our defense played exception football with a lot of turnovers, lot of stops in the red zone, and holding them to field goals was critical.
“When I say it was atypical just for us to get our horns out and run, Ulonzo and Tehran and our O Line, just the way the guys adapted and rolled to that I think it shows a lot about them.”
Said Thomas, “It means a lot to us that they trust us to put the game on our backs. They trusted us to move the ball and pick up first downs. ’Lonzo and I like to rotate to keep fresh legs out there. When he was out there, he did his thing, and I tried my best to give us first downs, too.”
Leading 23-16 with 9:26 remaining, the Aggies took over at their 25-yard line. Maier connected with Rocklin High grad Wesley Preece for a 25-yard pass, then the Aggies ran it eight times in a row for 63 yards. The drive ended in a missed field goal but chewed 4:23 off the clock.
The Panthers drove from their 21 to the Aggies’ 36 in less than three minutes but faced a fourth and 10. Quarterback Eli Dunne skipped a pass to Briley Moore under heavy pressure from Aggies linebacker Mason Moe.
Three plays later, the Aggies had their school’s first Division I playoff victory.
“They’re the gold standard now,” said Hawkins, a fullback for the Aggies in the early 1980s who played in a Division II national title game. “Nobody, including me, back in the old days, played these kind of teams, at this level. My first game here (as coach), I didn’t want these guys to be shackled by Aggie Pride. I wanted them to be inspired by that. It’s the thread of Aggie Pride. These guys have far exceeded that, and that’s what I’m most proud of. Every Aggie that’s ever played here has this team being the new gold standard.”
Doss had nine catches for 128 yards. He was quiet in the second half with just one catch, but he had already put his stamp on the game with a spectacular 31-yard catch just before halftime that set up a 19-yard field goal by Max O’Rourke.
“Coming out of halftime, they started playing ‘wall’ defense and tried to take me out of the game for the most part,” Doss said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about just me. It’s about the team, and we were able to compete at all positions and that’s what it’s going to take to win these playoff games, especially if we’re going to win a national championship.”
Doss was the first UC Davis player to be named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award as the nation’s most outstanding offensive player. He had 1,499 receiving yards in 2017 and another 1.054 yards going into Saturday’s FCS matchup.
“What’s so great about Keelan is he’s so smart with in-game stuff, he knows what was going on,” Hawkins said. “He’ll recommend, ‘Hey, we should try this,’ or, ‘We should do this,’ or, ‘I think this can happen because this is what they’re doing to me.’
“They started playing a lot more outside the box, and I don’t want to say they dared us to run, but they wanted to take away that part of your game, the receiver glance routes, and prove it that we could run it inside. And we were able to do that with these guys.”
Doss posted his 18th career 100-yard game, which adds to his Aggies career record.
Pat McCann helped recruit Doss to UC Davis when he was part of Ron Gould’s staff. When Gould was fired after the 2016 season, so too was McCann and David Braun, who coached the defensive line. McCann and Braun now coach for the Panthers, with McCann coaching wide receivers and Braun the special teams and outside linebackers.
“I will take that blame,” McCann told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier on Friday of recruiting Doss. “It’s funny. I was texting with Keelan a few weeks ago, and we joked wouldn’t it be ironic if we played each other in the playoffs, and sure enough it happens.”