It was a special night for special teams.
In a rewarding sendoff for 15 seniors playing their final home football game at Aggie Stadium, UC Davis used a couple of big kick returns, a fake punt and a gift safety on a kickoff to throttle North Dakota, 34-18, Saturday in Big Sky Conference action.
It was the last game of the season for the visitors.
“Our focus the last couple of weeks has been superb,” UCD coach Ron Gould told the assembled media afterward. “We talked about attention to detail and focusing on fundamental football.
“This group of seniors is really special. To see the way they’ve embraced me, see how they’ve responded to change — not necessarily better, but different — was great to see.”
In a game of big plays, costly mistakes and odd happenstance, the Aggies and North Dakota were deadlocked 3-3 until a wild beginning to the second period.
First, an eight-play, 80-yard UCD drive stalled on the final play of the first quarter.
That meant Brady Stuart would kick the second of his four field goals (this one from 29 yards out) on the initial play of the next stanza.
On the ensuing kickoff, the brilliant UND returner/receiver Greg Hardin played fast and loose with Marcus White’s kickoff …
Muffing it at the 1, Hardin juggled the ball back into the end zone — where he downed it, for a safety.
That meant North Dakota had to eat two points and give the ball right back to the Aggies.
Jonathan Perkins — who had a terrific Senior Day — took Zeb Miller’s kick 72 yards to the UND 17. On the next play, Gabe Manzanares followed fullback Dalton Turay’s seal block and traveled almost untouched to the first of his three scores.
When Stuart kicked the extra point, the 5,688 in attendance had witnessed something in 28 seconds that some fans don’t see in an entire game — a field goal, a safety, a touchdown and an extra point.
From there, a half that ended with UCD up 18-9 featured a missed Miller field goal, a good Stuart three-pointer and a short Adam Shaugabay TD run for North Dakota followed by the point-after dying at the hands of Aggie Anthony Kaspar.
In that first half, on three occasions it looked for split seconds like UCD would click for big points.
On the Aggies’ first play from scrimmage, flanker Tom Hemmingsen had outrun both his defender and the Randy Wright pass coming his way. Holding his ground, the sneaky senior made the grab, but was tackled in place, 44 yards downfield.
UCD settled for its first three points on that drive.
Twelve minutes later, T.J. King (back from injury) lit up the UND secondary, but had to wait for the arriving ball. King’s play went 35 yards and led to a second field goal.
Each time, Wright was throwing into a 5 mph breeze.
Later, a nifty misdirection play worked tight end Mark Martindale open with nobody between him and the goal at the North Dakota 15. This time, the ball was overthrown.
But in typical Wright fashion, the senior (who started his 40th game as an Aggie) managed the game.
Wright was 18-for-32, good for 263 yards, a TD, no interceptions and only one sack.
Meanwhile, Manzanares was at his dashing best: 28 carries, 132 yards, two touchdowns and a 5.2 average. The Bay Area product also caught three passes for 62 yards (including a 15-yard scoring flip from Wright). He now stands at 1,163 yards on the season with nine TDs.
“He’s the heartbeat of this team,” Gould said.
In the second half, Manzanares scored touchdowns of 15 (passing) and 1 yards and gained 50 of his night’s total rushing before giving way to Tavior Mowry (eight carries for 20 yards) late in the game.
Perkins’ big night included seven tackles and two passes defended.
On one series, Perkins knocked down back-to-back third-down throws, but each time a teammate was offside and the drive continued — ending only when Kenny Golladay had a fourth-down pass deflected by, yep, Jonathan Perkins.
North Dakota entered the game as the Big Sky’s top passing team (275 yards a game) and had just installed Ryan Bartels as its No. 1 quarterback.
Bartlels, a redshirt freshman, had thrown for more than 760 yards in his last two games, including directing the former Fighting Sioux (3-8, 2-6) to a 24-21 victory over Northern Colorado last week.
Bartels dinged UCD for 233 yards on 17-of-35 attempts, but was replaced by another redshirt freshman, Joe Mollberg (8-14-1, 135 and a TD) in the fourth period.
Hardin went over 1,000 yards receiving for UND and set a single-season school all-purpose-yards record with 2,003 yards. For the game, the senior had 179 yards on 11 grabs and returned three kickoffs for 36 yards.
Golladay caught five balls for 109 yards, including a fourth-period 30-yard touchdown from Mollberg.
“We knew they had good receivers,” Perkins said, alluding to a bend-but-don’t-break attitude. “We just had to trust our technique. Keep their guys in front of us.”
UCD (4-3 in Big Sky) ran its overall record to 4-7 — the identical mark under retired coach Bob Biggs each of the past two seasons.
But the Aggies have one more outing — Saturday vs. Sacramento State in the 60th Causeway Classic.
Notes: The game marked a “Salute to Heroes” featuring a Huey helicopter fly-by, static military displays, a moment of silence for fallen servicemen and a 10-yard United States flag unfurled by veterans of a various American conflicts. World War II combat veteran Ernie Head and his wife Marie were honored in ceremonies at midfield. … The 15 Aggies seniors are Khalid Jones, Dre Allen, Aarynn Jones, Colin Kelly, Hemmingsen, Wesley O’Brien, Taylor Sloat, Cameron Sentance, Nick King, Joey Waters, Jimmy Kunkel, Earnest Sayles III, Wright, Ryan O’Holleran and Perkins. … Sayles picked off Mollberg late in the game. The fake punt on which kicker Colby Wadman gained 24 yards and a first down was the first Aggie fake punt since Ryan Christie pulled one off in 1996. Wadman averaged 45 yards on four punts, including one downed at the UND 3. … A 44-yard Charles Boyett punt return set up Stuart’s third field goal. Stuart has hit eight in a row.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected]