I’ve never considered myself a historian, but since I started watching Aggie football as a 5-year-old in the Ted Forbes era and later earned my living covering Aggie football for this very newspaper, I sometimes get asked for my thoughts on the most memorable games in Aggie history.
It’s a tough question, given that there have been several distinct eras of UC Davis football, including the present one that involves a sometimes painful transition to I-AA (FCS) competition and the rigors of the Big Sky Conference.
It’s also hard to rank the games in order of significance, given that some were memorable if not particularly significant, while others were significant in the great scheme of things, but not particularly memorable.
For instance, the only time the Aggies played in the national championship game came in 1982 against Southwest Texas State in McAllen, Texas. That, in and of itself, would perhaps qualify the game as the most significant in Aggie history.
But the game itself, a 34-9 rout by Southwest Texas, was a dud. The Aggies had lost star quarterback and future first-round NFL draft choice Ken O’Brien in a 19-14 semifinal victory over North Dakota State the week before, and were simply unable to keep pace with the talented Bobcats.
If you want “memorable,” that semifinal win on Toomey Field over North Dakota State, when the Aggies held off a late rally by the rugged Bison to win their 17th straight game and qualify for a berth in the national championship game, is hard to top.
These, of course, are my memories, which, while they do cover a number of decades, don’t stretch all the way back to that first Aggie game against St. Mary’s (a 9-0 loss) in 1915.
Coaches, players, fans and other observers will no doubt have different memories.
Still, I suspect there is near-universal agreement that the two most memorable games in Aggie history are the 30-29 “Miracle Game” win over Cal State Hayward in 1971 and the stunning 20-17 win over Stanford in 2005.
The Aggies trailed by 15 points against Hayward and by 17 against Stanford, but both times mounted last-second comebacks that are the thing of legends. Unfortunately, both games were on the road, so only the most loyal of Aggie fans were rewarded with in-person memories.
In the Hayward game, the Aggies trailed 29-14 with but 20 seconds remaining, but scored two touchdowns and two two-point conversions in those final 20 seconds to secure what ranks among the greatest comebacks in all of college football history. I’ve watched a fair amount of football in my life, but have never witnessed a comeback — or even heard of a comeback — that comes close to this one.
That’s why it qualifies for “Miracle Game” status, complete with capital letters.
Sadly, a number of those “loyal” Aggie fans had already left the stadium before the Miracle unfolded. Now, of course, everyone in Blue and Gold claims to have been there to the end.
The Hayward win, however, wasn’t the only dramatic comeback of the 1971 season that included a 14-13 win at Nevada and a season-ending, championship-clinching, 29-28 win at Humboldt State when Adrian Wagner booted a 39-yard field goal through the late-night fog on the game’s final play.
The 1977 season had two especially memorable games, an electrifying 37-21 win over Nevada and a heartbreaking 39-30 semifinal playoff loss to powerful Lehigh, both on Toomey Field.
The much-hyped Nevada game draw 12,800 fans, the biggest crowd ever on Toomey Field, while the Lehigh showdown started at 10 a.m. local time to accommodate an ABC-TV audience, with Ara Parseghian providing color commentary from a press box considerably smaller than the one he knew at Notre Dame. Ara is to be forgiven for telling viewers that the press box afforded him a view of the beautiful San Joaquin Valley.
Those who were there in the fall of 1986 will never forget the 45-41 Aggie win over Pacific in Stockton, when the Aggies built a big early lead as quarterback Chris Petersen completed his first 16 passes, then had to come from behind to secure an upset of a Division I-A opponent.
A 20-18 Humboldt State win on a last-second field goal at the HSU Redwood Bowl in Arcata in 1981 was memorable because it snapped UC Davis’ incredible 38-game winning streak in league games, while a heart-stopping, last-second 31-28 Sac State win on Toomey Field early in the 1988 season halted an 18-game Aggie win streak over the Hornets that was threatening the competitiveness of the annual Causeway Classic.
As Hornet fans danced in victory on the Toomey Field grass, even diehard Aggie fans had to grudgingly admire the spirited effort Sac State brought across the Causeway that night. Or at least as much as an Aggie fan can admire a bunch of dancing Hornets.
For sheer disappointment — which can also be memorable — the 58-48 playoff loss to Bloomsburg State in the year 2000 ranks high on the list. The Aggies, after all, were 12-0 entering the game and had won their first two playoff games by scores of 48-10 and 62-18. Many felt this would be the year UC Davis finally claimed that elusive national championship.
Another one of those painful, yet memorable, losses came at the very end of the 1973 season when a last-second Boise State score gave the Broncos a 32-31 victory on Toomey Field despite a 419-yard passing performance from Aggie freshman Jim Speck, just five months removed from Davis High School.
Other unforgettable moments came in 1963 when the Aggies clinched a Far Western Conference title with a 17-8 win over Sac State. I still remember coach Will Lotter, quarterback Dick Carriere and several other stars of the game riding around the Toomey Field track in the horse-drawn carriage that used to go the winner of this rivalry game.
For me, though, the most memorable game of all came during the Columbus Day storm of 1962 that dumped six inches of rain on Toomey Field in just three days. Led by future coach Bob Foster, the Aggies prevailed 8-6 over Nevada, opting to go for a two-point conversion because kicking a PAT in the deluge was deemed impossible.
As one of the half-dozen or so fans who braved the storm to watch our local heroes, it’s a memory that will stay with me forever.
— Reach Bob Dunning at firstname.lastname@example.org