CEDAR CITY, Utah — After giving way to transfer Jimmy Laughrea earlier this season, veteran UC Davis quarterback Randy Wright has earned back his starting job for Saturday’s Big Sky crucial game at Southern Utah.
Aggie coach Ron Gould told The Enterprise that Wright’s performance in the Aggies’ first win — 30-13 over Idaho State last week — was enough to secure a second start. Gould said both quarterbacks “looked strong in practice” and the decision came after consulting offensive coordinator Kevin Daft.
The homestanding Thunderbirds (4-1, 1-0) have won three straight from UCD (1-4, 1-0) but with previous meetings, the Aggies hold a 10-6 series advantage. Wright is 0-2 against SUU — having been beaten, 34-3, in 2011 and 55-24 the previous year. The two teams did not play last season.
Gould said while it was clear his defense again played a prominent role in handling Idaho State, he also praised the improved play of his offensive line.
As center Jay Luchetti, guards Jimmy Kunkel and Parker Smith and tackles Ian Joseph and Chris Schneider found their footing Saturday at Aggie Stadium, running back Gabe Manzanares had one of the biggest rushing days in UCD history (208 yards).
“I got great blocks from those guys … and the tight ends and receivers were downfield with plays and fullback Dalton Turay was awesome clearing paths,” said Manzanares, a former City College of San Francisco runner.
Manzanares walked on to the team after spring workouts. He immediately moved up the depth chart and is now the team’s starter and leading rusher (371 yards in four games).
Gould says he still wants to see more production from his tight ends, but that appears to be coming as evidenced by Taylor Sloat and Cameron Sentance shaking loose early against ISU (but errant Laughrea passes didn’t seal the deal and led to Gould’s pitching change).
Kicker Brady Stuart contributed mightily, too.
After missing a chip-shot field goal on his team’s opening 62-yard, 11-play drive, the sophomore sat at 2-for-7 in the young season. But Stuart bounced back and his three-pointers from 36, 24 and 24 yards were enough to earn the place kicker from Newhall the co-Big Sky Conference Special Teams Player of the Week.
In getting that first victory against the Bengals, UCD saw Laughrea and Wright complete passed to eight different receivers. Wright finished 14-of-22 for 201 yards and two scores.
But the trick this Saturday is to keep the ball away from Southern Utah and its stingy offense, led by QB Aaron Cantu.
Cantu has hit 70.7 percent of his passes for 870 yards and seven touchdowns. Running backs Raysean Martin (311), Malik Brown (167) and Levi Teo (80) do a lion’s share of SUU’s ball carrying.
Cantu has been in no hurry to take the ball down the field. His yards-per-completion is under 8.0 and the T-Birds are averaging 3.2 yards a rush — and just a hiccup short of 130 a game.
Punter Brock Miller (43.1) and kicker Colton Cook (7-of-8 field goal tries converted) are among the best special-teams tandem in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“They are well-coached in all three phases,” Gould said of his opponent and its coach Ed Lamb. “They are physical up front. They play a very physical game, which is only exceeded by their intensity.”
With only six turnovers, Southern Utah has been able to walk the ball down the field, winning the time-of-possession battle: 34:40-25:20.
“Cantu is very efficient,” Gould added. “He gets the ball out fast, makes great decisions and overall they run the ball well between the tackles.
“You look at their film and you think Martin has a 1-yard gain, then all of a sudden it’s a 4- or 5-yard gain.”
As it did with Idaho State, UCD is going to have control the line of scrimmage, while linebackers and that sparkling Aggie secondary must stay on track with their assignments, then swarm to the ball and wrap up.
Second chances, like against Portland State, mean long and costly runs, Gould explained:
“We have to rally to the football and gang tackle.”
After a slow start, the Aggies have forced seven turnovers (equal to the times they’ve coughed it up).
Game time is 12:05 p.m.
Notes: Saturday’s game airs on KHTK (1140 AM) with UCD alum Scott Marsh and Doug Kelly handling the mic duties. The pre-game show starts at 11:30 a.m. … Southern Utah’s only loss is a 48-10 drubbing at Washington State. … With Alex Cannon (knee) on the rack, Aggie receiver T.J. King shined against ISU, collecting four passes for 70 yards. Also, Turay caught a 40-yarder from Wright and later scored on an 8-yard toss. … The Idaho State contest also marked freshman punter Cody Wadman’s best outing to date: six kicks for a 40.5-yard average. … Manzanares’ big day tied Phil Wintz (208 yards against Southern Oregon in 1952) for 10th on the all-time Aggie list. … QB Wright had started 32-of-33 games since his freshman year. Laughrea started the previous four games before giving way against Idaho State.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.