A blank canvas is a great thing, until the first stroke is a splotch.
UC Davis football head coach Bob Biggs, who will be opening his 20th — and final — year at the helm on Thursday against Azusa Pacific, knows that as well as anyone.
Accordingly, he has put his team through a series of rigorous practices and film sessions in preparation for its first game of 2012.
At first glance, the 6 p.m. contest at Aggie Stadium shouldn’t be a difficult one for UCD.
The Aggies, after all, are an experienced Football Championship Subdivision squad, while the Cougars will be playing their first game as a Division II team (playing in the Great Northwest Atlantic Conference). Prior to this season, APU competed in the NAIA and rarely was a contender, going 14-28 over the past three seasons.
However, Biggs and Company don’t have to look far to know the dangers of underestimating a D-II squad. Last year, they were upset at home by Humboldt State, also a member of the GNAC.
If nothing else, the Cougars are a very deep team, as they entered fall camp with 126 players on the roster.
“They’re an up-and-coming program,” Biggs said. “Some people may misconceive (that) they’re NAIA and now moving into Division II as meaning that they’re less of a program than we are. It’s not true at all. All we’ve got to do is point to Humboldt State last year as an example of (what happens) when you don’t pay attention and take anyone on your schedule lightly.”
That being said, the Aggies appear to have the advantage on both sides of the ball.
The Cougars run a spread offense, something UCD has grown quite familiar with over the years. The Aggies’ 4-2-5 defensive alignment (four linemen, two linebackers, five defense backs) is built to stop the spread.
“We see the spread all the time,” Biggs explained. “We have a scheme we like to play against it and we feel comfortable (playing against it).”
With five UCD defensive backs on the field, Azusa Pacific will have a hard time finding advantageous matchups for its receivers.
In addition, the Aggie defensive line has been a force during training camp and should be able to generate pressure without the assistance of the linebackers, freeing more players to cover the receivers and contain Cougar QB Nick Owens, a transfer from Pasadena City College.
On the flip side of the ball, APU uses a 3-4-4 defensive scheme that relies on its quickness and ability to confuse the quarterback before the snap. The strength of the Cougar defense in the linebacking corps, which returns three starters, including Sean Barber and Spencer Danielson — the team’s top two tacklers in 2011.
“They remind me a little of the old Cal Poly defenses,” Biggs said. “They mix it up with their coverages and try to confuse you with their alignments. They play fast.”
Expect the Aggies to run the ball heavily, especially in the early stages of the game. With bruising, experienced offensive linemen such as Sean Davies and Ray Wilburn leading the way, UCD running backs Colton Silveria, Marquis Nicolis and Courtney Williams — a Davis High graduate — should be able to pick up solid chunks of yardage throughout the game.
If the Aggies can establish the run early, they’ll open things up for junior quarterback Randy Wright and the passing game.
Wright, who will open under center for the third straight season, has shown the ability to hit the deep ball, especially off of play-action fakes. And with receivers like Alex Cannon and T.J. King stretching the field, he could do some damage on Thursday night.
With UCD holding the clear advantage in talent, a focused Aggie squad will mean a 1-0 start for the first time since 2006. And that stat should be motivation enough.
— Reach Will Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org