College Sports

Montana State huge test for UC Davis defense in Big Sky football game

Bert Watts is UC Davis’ second-year defensive coordinator.
Bert Watts is UC Davis’ second-year defensive coordinator. UC Davis

UC Davis will face one of the nation’s most explosive offenses when it plays No. 11 Montana State in a Big Sky Conference homecoming game Saturday at Aggie Stadium.

The Bobcats (4-2, 2-0) have scored 50 or more points three times, including in a 59-56, come-from-behind win over Sacramento State last Saturday at Hornet Stadium.

They will test a UC Davis (1-4, 0-2) defense that has earned accolades from rival conference coaches for its physical and heady play despite injuries and one of the toughest schedules in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Bert Watts, 35, the Aggies’ second-year defensive coordinator and secondary coach, is keeping the Aggies’ defense focused on finishing strong after a disappointing Big Sky Conference start and the loss of senior leaders Charles Boyett, Ryan Dimino and Steven Pitts to injuries.

Dimino, a linebacker and former Bee Player of the Year at Del Campo High School, played just two games before a season-ending shoulder injury. Boyett, a free safety and last year’s leading tackler, injured his ankle in practice two days before the Aggies played Colorado State on Sept. 13 and has missed three games, though he may play Saturday. Pitts, a linebacker and the team’s leading tackler this season, injured his ankle in last Saturday’s 23-14 loss at Portland State and is doubtful this Saturday.

Coach Ron Gould is pleased with how Watts and his defensive staff of linebackers coach Jeff Copp, line coach Will Kofe and defensive quality control coach Robert Haney has responded to the adversity.

“He’s a phenomenal coach, a phenomenal person,” Gould said of Watts. “Those defensive guys have the right mindset, the right work ethic.”

UCD’s physical play wasn’t lost on Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin, whose No. 2 Eagles were held to nine points in the first half before beating the Aggies 37-14 in the Big Sky opener Sept. 27 in Davis.

“You can tell they live and breathe physical football,” Baldwin said. “I can only imagine what their spring practices are like and how their fall camp goes. What stands out is how well they play together. ...They come downhill and hit you in the mouth.”

UC Davis senior defensive end Marques Barron smiled when he was told about that.

“You always want to be that more physical team,” Barron said. “Our coaches preach that every single game, every single day. … If it’s showing more than ever, then it’s just the work we put in, and the motivation they’ve given us to do more.”

Watts agrees work ethic is important.

“Effort leads to physicality because if you are playing hard, that usually means you’re playing pretty physical and creating a physical mindset,” said Watts, a former Cal defensive back.

Watts has integrated younger players into the defensive lineup; six underclassmen are listed as starters on the depth chart and at least six others are making contributions as backups.

“It is a little disappointing not to have some of your key guys,” Gould said. “But we have a philosophy that you never worry about the players who are not there because if you do, you take away from the ones who are. You can’t wallow in it.”

A lack of depth and experience can be a problem against teams like Montana State and its quick-play offense.

“That’s really tempo more than anything,” Watts said. “For one, when you average 90 to 100 plays on defense, it’s tough to hold off a team. Guys get fatigued and start to break down. Two, it just gives an offense more opportunities. So it’s important that we do a real good job of getting off the field on third downs.”

And UCD’s ball-control offense has been inconsistent, converting just 25 percent of third-down attempts. Gould may try to jump-start the offense today by replacing incumbent senior quarterback London Lacy with sophomore Ben Scott.

No matter who starts, Watts says there is no finger pointing from the opposite side of the ball.

“At the end of the day, it’s our job to hold the other team’s offense to fewer points than our offense scores,” he said. “If we do that, then we’ve done our job, no matter the score.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.