UC Davis travels to No. 5 Montana State on Saturday.
A win against the Bobcats (5-2, 3-0 Big Sky) keeps the emerging Aggies smack-dab in the middle of the conference title chase.
When MSU football coach Rob Ash had a chance to review films of recent UCD games, he didn’t see a team that started 0-4. He was zeroed in on the Aggie squad that’s won three of its last four outings.
“I’m very impressed with Davis. I enjoyed watching them on film,” Ash told Big Sky sports writers on a Wednesday conference call. “With their multiple sets … they’re tough to get ready for on defense. Versus Northern Colorado, they were totally dominant.”
The Aggies (3-5, 3-1) have been solid on the road with wins at Southern Utah (21-3) and last week at UNC (34-18). Even in the season opener at South Dakota, fans are discovering that that 10-7 setback was a decent effort. The Coyotes, after a 1-10 season in 2012, are 4-3 this year and ranked among the Football Championship Subdivision’s elite defenses.
But Montana State could be a cut above anyone UCD has seen this fall.
“Being in a hostile environment, we have to stay focused and execute the game plan,” said Aggie coach Ron Gould. “(The keys will be ) our attention to detail and play hard. They are very physical and we have to match that. And we can’t turn the ball over.”
The Bobcats are led on offense by quarterback Darius McGhee and running back Cody Kirk.
McGhee, a senior who missed some time with a shoulder injury, seems back on track and brings a two-dimensional problem to the field. McGhee (6-foot, 212 pounds) has hit 76-of-119 passes for 1,037 yards and four touchdowns. He’s rushed for another 155 and two scores.
Not scintillating numbers, but remember, he sat out two games after getting cuffed around in Montana State’s 31-30 loss to Football Bowl Subdivision Southern Methodist.
“He’s a consummate professional,” Gould said of the Euless, Texas, native. “Great players are able to make everyone around him better, and that’s what (McGhee) does.
“You don’t really stop this young man. You hope to contain him.”
Should McGhee be neutralized, RB Kirk could dance onto the scene.
While gaining 595 yards, the 5-10, 213-pound senior from Frenchtown, Mont., has scored 12 TDs.
Kirk’s backup, junior Shawn Johnson, also has been problematic for opponents. On only 47 carries, the Bakersfield product has traveled 492 yards (6.6 average) and hit pay dirt four times.
Wideout Tanner Bleskin (45 catches, 670 yards, two TDs) is the top MSU receiver, while ends Jon Ellis and Brian Flotkoetter have combined for 690 yards and seven touchdowns on 45 receptions.
Individually, the offensive numbers don’t knock anybody over.
But understand, this is a nationally ranked team that has forced 17 turnovers (a plus-10 ratio) and scored four defensive/special teams touchdowns.
A handful of the forced miscues were deep in opponents’ territory, so on occasion, MSU didn’t have that far to go to celebrate.
As Gould mentioned, UCD has to take good care of the ball — and keeping the Bobcat offense on their bench will help.
In the win at Northern Colorado, the Aggies played The Perfect Half, leading 24-0 at intermission.
The shortest of its first four scoring drives was 74 yards and UCD kept the ball for 21:42 of the first 30 minutes.
On Saturday, that same kind of stingy football will go a long way toward providing fuel for an upset. And it’s not like a win is the impossible dream.
Last season, No. 2 Montana State nipped UCD, 48-41. The Aggies led 38-31 in the final quarter. Local QB Randy Wright threw for two touchdowns and ran for another before a late interception led to MSU’s margin of victory.
“They played great football against us that game,” recalled Ash, promising there is no revenge factor in Saturday’s matchup. In fact, Ash thought it was “one of the better football games in the nation” and said UCD has his attention:
“They are a physical, well-coached group. Their defense did a tremendous job shutting down NAU’s Zach Bauman (a season-low 56 yards rushing). There’s no payback in mind … we were just happy to get out of there with the ‘W.’ ”
On Saturday, Aggie coach Gould hopes he can tell the media, “We were just happy to get out of there with a ‘W.’ ”
Kickoff is at 1:05 p.m. PST.
Notes: Bobcat RB Kirk had five touchdowns in a 63-20 pasting of North Dakota on Sept. 28. … Eight minutes from hell resulted in a 52-38 loss at Stephen F. Austin. Leading 38-31 with 8:45 to go, MSU coughed up 21 straight points. … The ’Cats average 457 yards a game (17th best in FCS), but have given up 361 yards an outing (ranked 41st). UCD (23.0) and MSU (21.4) are on equal footing in points-allowed averages. … KHTK (1140 AM) with Scott Marsh and Doug Kelly will air the game and there will be live video at www.ucdavisaggies.com. … Northern Colorado CB Courtney Hall was suspended by the Big Sky Conference for a targeting hit on Wright last Saturday. Wright was scrambling out-of-bounds on a second-down play when Hall popped him in the third quarter. On the next play, Wright hit T.J. King with a 13-yard TD pass, making the score 31-0. Hall was ejected and has to sit out the first half of the Bears’ next game.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at email@example.com