BOZEMAN, Mont. — Despite 179 yards rushing from Gabe Manzanares, UC Davis couldn’t overcome two big pass plays and fell, 34-17, to No. 5 Montana State before a crowd of 18,627 at raucous Bobcat Stadium on Saturday.
“Our hat’s off to those guys,” Aggie coach Ron Gould said afterward, adding: “I am very, very pleased with our team’s effort. We came up short … but our passion, our drive to come back, our energy. … We’ll be back.”
UCD dropped to 3-6 overall and 3-2 in the Big Sky Conference.
Trailing 14-0, a 29-yard Brady Stuart field goal and a 9-yard Manzanares touchdown got the Aggies back in the game at 14-10 with less than two minutes left until intermission.
But then disaster struck.
Back-up running back Shawn Johnson got behind the Aggie defense and caught a 45-yard pass — a play that would lead to a 3-yard Cody Kirk TD run 42 seconds before halftime.
Gould was asked if the Johnson catch was a back-breaker.
“That’s part of the game,” the first-year UCD coach answered. “The game is about ebbs and flows and ups and downs.
“We’re playing a very explosive offense. Nobody was hanging their heads. It was not deflating.”
But the locals had seen enough of Johnson in that first half. In addition to the 45-yarder, he burned the Aggies early when he was lost in the shuffle on a wheel route. The versatile Bobcat broke wide open deep down the left sideline, and standout quarterback DeNarius McGhee found him from 47 yards out to put MSU up 7-0.
When that first Bobcats score came, two minutes had yet to expire.
Montana State (7-2, 5-0) was its usual efficient self. In their five scoring drives, the Bobcats’ shortest venture was 57 yards — and none of them took more than 4:42 to complete.
With orchestrated noise throughout the game, closed-end Bobcat Stadium can make visitors jittery. The Aggies couldn’t get untracked at first, although UCD quarterback Randy Wright did a terrific job communicating with the line.
But the Aggies found themselves trailing, 14-0, when little-used tight end Chad Newell caught a 1-yard scoring flip from McGhee. It capped a 10-play, 68-yard march.
After that, UCD began to settle down.
With the noise ever increasing, Wright brought the Aggies 69 yards to set up Stuart’s 29-yard field goal at 5:14 of the second period.
In the middle of that trip, Manzanares fried the highlight reels with a 31-yard run that saw the junior sensation break two tackles at the 40 before mystifying another Bobcat duo with a ninja-like move — knocking one would-be tackler over and then avoiding the second by bowing low, while spinning, at the 25.
Eventually, MSU stopped his madcap scamper at its own 17. A review of the film proved it was the seventh ‘Cat to scratch the walk-on running back who finally brought Manzanares down.
Another solid UCD defensive stand — featuring a third-down sack of McGhee by Marques Barron — was augmented by Charles Boyett’s 27-yard punt return.
Ready to roll from their own 49, the Aggies saddled up their lead pony Manzanares and giddy-upped home on a four-play, 51-yard scoring drive.
The journey began with UCD penalized five yards, but after that, Manzanares rushed for 36 yards on four carries and Tom Hemmingsen caught a 20-yard strike from Wright before Manzanares scored on yet another slick run around the left end, this time bowling over safety James Nelson at the goal line.
Manzanares gained 113 of his yards in the first two periods.
Halfway through the third quarter, the locals forced their first turnover since an Oct. 5 victory at Southern Utah.
MSU wide receiver Brian Flotkoetter grabbed a 20-yard pass from McGhee, but safety Boyett knocked the ball loose and cornerback Jonathan Perkins recovered the fumble.
The Bobcats held, however, and then widened their lead with 24 seconds remaining in the quarter, with receiver Jon Ellis scoring on an 11-yard reverse. The silver lining: Castaic native Kyle DeVaughn blocked Rory Perez’s extra-point attempt.
Kirk’s second score of the game (and Big Sky-leading 14th of the season) came with 4:57 to play.
However, down 34-10, the locals had one more push in them.
Playing with urgency, UCD quickly marched 75 yards in 13 plays (3:33) and scored the afternoon’s final touchdown: a two-yard toss from Wright to Hemmingsen.
Wright was 22-of-33 for just 159 yards, no interceptions and a lost fumble on a fourth-down sack.
Forcing its guests to throw short, second- or third-read passes, Montana State coughed up but two passes longer than 10 yards (18 and 20). Hemmingsen became only the first Aggie to catch 10 passes in a game since the senior turned the trick himself in 2011. He averaged 8.1 yards a snag on Saturday.
Manzanares caught four passes for 33 yards and TE Taylor Sloat had four grabs for 16 yards.
Kirk rushed for 119 yards, Johnson had the two catches for 92 yards and McGhee was 15-of-20 for 230 yards, two TDs and 51 yards rushing on 10 carries.
“They play hard; they’re really good,” MSU linebacker Michael Foster told The Enterprise. “They gave us their best shot and we weren’t perfect, but we made plays when we needed to.”
Next up for UCD is a home game against Cal Poly (3-5, 2-2), a 17-13 home loser to Northern Arizona on Saturday.
Notes: Linebacker Jonathan Bias led the Aggies with nine tackles — six in the first quarter. LB Ryan Dimino and Boyett each collected eight. Among defensive end Nick King’s four tackles was his sixth sack of 2013. Colin Kelly and Khalid Jones also shared a McGhee takedown. … Montana State DE Brad Daly recorded his 11th and 12th sacks and made three more tackles for losses, giving him 18 on the season. … With three games left, Manzanares now has 890 yards rushing — the most by an Aggie since Matt Massari went for 1,274 in 2003.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected]