CEDAR CITY, Utah — Elevation, schmell-a-vation.
Despite coming to town less than 24 hours before kickoff, despite knowing it was playing at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, despite the fact that its tongues were dragging in 2011 during a lopsided loss at Eccles Coliseum, the UC Davis football team dominated host Southern Utah, 21-3, on Saturday in another impressive step forward under first-year coach Ron Gould.
Running back Gabe Manzanares, not even on the Aggie radar in the spring, rushed for 175 yards and two touchdowns, while reborn senior quarterback Randy Wright conducted a clock-consuming offense as UCD threw its helmet in the Big Sky Conference race.
The Aggies, who started 0-4, have notched back-to-back league wins and share the top of the standings with Sacramento State, Montana and Montana State, all at 2-0.
In his last two games (Saturday and a 208-yard day against Idaho State), junior Manzanares — a transfer from City College of San Francisco — has rushed for 383 yards. For the season, he’s at 546 with a 4.8 yards-per-carry average.
Wright — a guy who started 32 of 33 games in his first three seasons on campus — lost his job after a season-opening 10-7 loss at South Dakota. He came in during the first quarter of last week’s win over Idaho State and started at Southern Utah.
Aggie defensive end Nick King thinks Wright is back, and that the QB and running back are a tandem with which to be reckoned.
“It was great to stand on the sidelines watching (Randy) work, watching Gabe run the ball,” the senior told The Enterprise.
Wright completed 16-of-25 for 193 yards and a 19-yard touchdown pass to T. J. King, which gave UCD a commanding 21-3, third-period lead.
Wright and Manzanares combined to give the Aggies a 33:24-26:36 time-of-possession advantage.
Competing in Utah, generally a tough place for flat-landers to play, King and his coach said being more than a mile in the air for this one didn’t matter.
“I was actually standing on the sideline ready to go, wanting to get back in there,” King added.
“We didn’t even talk about the altitude all week. That’s not a factor,” Aggie coach Ron Gould said after the game. “We talked about preparation all week; working hard day in and day out.”
Gould also praised Wright’s second terrific effort in a row.
“Randy came in and did a fabulous job again … very pleased with how he’s orchestrating the offense.”
The Thunderbirds (4-2, 1-1) got pushed around on this day, thanks to the trench play of tackles Chris Schneider and Ian Joseph, guards Jimmy Kunkel and Parker Smith, center Jay Luchetti and fullback Dalton Turay.
“I’m real pleased with the offensive line,” Gould continued. “Those guys are playing physical, coming off the ball with an attitude.
“Overall, you’ve got to be pleased with a victory.”
On its first possession, SUU flexed its muscle, but an 11-play drive fizzled when Colton Cook’s 29-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Jonathan Perkins.
UCD, however, gave the ball right back — thanks to a Manzanares fumble.
In business at their own 44, the T-Birds turned the miscue into a successful Cook three-pointer (from 30 yards out).
For Aggies fans, it started to look familiar …
UCD has struggled keeping the ball and Southern Utah had a 7:53-1:31 time-of-possession advantage by that point in the game.
But after that Thunderbird FG, things began to change.
The two squads traded possessions before Wright directed an eight-play, 55-yard drive that put the visitors up 7-3 (Manzanares scoring from 16 yards out). SUU couldn’t move again — thanks in part to a Steven Pitts sack of quarterback Aaron Cantu and a timely Anthony Kaspar stop of RB Raysean Martin on a third-down draw.
Brock Miller’s punt put the Aggies back at their own 27, but once again Wright was masterful.
Each of his three completions gave UCD first downs — including a 19-yarder to T.J. King that gave the locals a first-and-goal at the SUU 2.
Two plays later, Manzanares followed Turay into the north end zone and, just like that, the Aggies were in control, 14-3, and the crowd of 3,558 fell silent for much of the rest of the afternoon.
King is working himself into an important role as he and Wright build chemistry. The junior caught four passes for 70 yards a week ago and had four more receptions for 69 yards and the back-breaking 19-yard TD on Saturday.
Taylor Sloat, an All-Big Sky preseason selection at tight end, also is starting to feel it. The senior caught three passes for 34 yards and was often part of Manzanares’ blocking convoy.
Manusamoa Luuga, the freshman from Long Beach Poly High, carried the rock seven times for 32 yards.
Cantu completed 29-of-50 passes for 281 yards. But he was intercepted twice: once by Dre Allen and the other time by Shamawn Wright in the end zone, ending a 13-play, 90-yard T-Bird drive with no love.
SUU netted 45 yards rushing and No. 1 rock carrier Martin was held to 47 while Cantu was sacked four times, losing 13 yards.
Next up for UCD is Saturday’s Homecoming game against Montana (4 p.m.). The Grizzlies beat Portland State, 55-27, Saturday.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected]