College Sports

Eaton’s 78-yard fumble return touchdown for UC Davis devours Cal Poly’s comeback hopes

UC Davis linebacker sprints for a 78-yard touchdown after recovering a fumble during Saturday’s home win over Cal Poly.
UC Davis linebacker sprints for a 78-yard touchdown after recovering a fumble during Saturday’s home win over Cal Poly.

One thing about defensive guys and a loose ball is everything stops for a split instant, gold in their hands, and then it’s fast-forward fun.

That was Nick Eaton in Yolo County on Saturday night.

The redshirt freshman linebacker intercepted an option pitch-out and bolted 78 yards for a touchdown to deliver the deciding blow, stretching in a flash what had become a tight game into a 17-point one.

UC Davis downed Cal Poly 48-24 in a Big Sky Conference contest in front of a UCD Health Stadium record crowd of 11,194 in the 45th meeting between the rivals and the 16th time they have competed for the Golden Horseshoe.

And then the Aggies collectively exhaled.

This halts UCD’s three-game losing streak and returns a pulse to the program’s playoff hopes back on life support. The Aggies are coming off a program FCS-best 10-win campaign.

“I just wanted to score,” Eaton, a graduate of Whitney High School, said with a laugh. “Once I got the ball, I just kicked in the horses and ran as fast as I could.”

It seemed as if the majority of the UCD sideline raced with him, including coach Dan Hawkins, a big-picture guy who never spelled out doom if the Aggies don’t win football games. But campus life is a bit easier when they do, especially for a program that entered the season with lofty expectations.

UCD was preseason ranked No. 4, opened with a close loss at Cal, won two in a row and then hit that skid. But there’s a lot of season left, and UCD is sitting at 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the wildly entertaining and unpredictable Big Sky.

“These guys play their best football when they’re up against it, which says something about their character and their resolve and their belief,” Hawkins said. “Just still trying to get them to get on the gas pedal from the start all the way to the end.”

On the Eaton play, Hawkins said, “It doesn’t surprise me at all what he did. He’s an explosive player who made a great athletic play.”

UCD bolted to a 34-0 lead before Cal Poly closed to within 34-24 early in the fourth quarter.

Said Cal Poly quarterback Jalen Harner of Eaton, who who had seven tackles, four for loss, “We started coming back, but they had that 78-yard run off that pitch. That guy just shot down the field.”

Hawkins also raved about his senior quarterback, Jake Maier, who passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns as UCD produced a season-high in yardage (588), in rushing yards (194) and in points.

It was the fourth time Maier has had four touchdown passes in a game this season. Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. ran for a UCD career-best 152 yards, including a 56-yard run to open the game, and receiver Khris Vaughn caught eight passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns.

UCD plays at Southern Utah on Saturday and hosts No. 5 Weber State on Oct. 26.

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Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.