DAVIS, California — Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. had been gashing Montana State on the ground. So UC Davis went to him on a fourth down in its own territory.
It didn’t work this time. This time, the Bobcats crowded the line of scrimmage, pushed the Aggies offensive line back and prevented Gilliam from going anywhere.
The Aggies offense has been prolific throughout the season, and their defense minimized MSU’s offense.
But that fourth-down attempt changed everything. The play positioned the Bobcats in UC Davis territory and led to a game-tying field goal. Those points gave the Bobcats’ defense momentum as they forced a three-and-out the next time UC Davis had the ball. And MSU’s rushing attack was impossible to stop afterward.
That fourth-down play helped change the outlook of MSU’s season. The Bobcats may have been hoping for a berth in the FCS playoffs if they dropped the game. They’ll be expecting one now.
The No. 10-ranked Bobcats commanded the fourth quarter and defeated UC Davis 27-17 on Saturday at UC Davis Health Stadium. MSU (8-3, 5-2 Big Sky) is now well in position to continue into the postseason.
“You can see we’re cruising right now,” MSU wide receiver Kevin Kassis said. “We’re doing well right now, and we want to keep that going.”
The Bobcats set the tone early. The Aggies started the game off with an efficient drive that spanned 10 plays and 73 yards and reached as far as the MSU 2-yard line.
UC Davis tried to go for it on fourth down, but quarterback Jake Maier’s pass sailed over the head of his intended receiver. The Bobcats forced the Aggies to score on just three of their five drives that reached MSU’s 20-yard line.
“Just don’t flinch,” MSU defensive lineman Jason Scrempos, who blocked a field goal, said. “Things are going to happen. They’re going to make big plays. They’re a good team too, and we knew that. So we just had to react on the fly and just play our game.”
The Bobcats have traditionally been better in the second half of games. They had outscored their opponents 164-97 after intermission up until Saturday.
This time, the Bobcats were stout defensively early on, allowing a high-flying offense like UC Davis’ to score just 10 points before intermission.
And offensively, the Bobcats compiled a seven-play, 80-yard drive late in the first quarter and capped it with a 5-yard touchdown run by Troy Andersen.
Against UC Davis, MSU couldn’t afford to fall behind early. So the Bobcats sustained drives throughout the first half. Kassis was the fuel, as he caught seven passes for a career-high 135 yards. Quarterback Tucker Rovig did his job by finding Kassis and open receivers when he needed and finished 17 of 25 for 217 yards.
MSU head coach Jeff Choate called it Rovig’s best game of his career.
“Having Tucker being able to put the ball in places where (Kassis) could make plays,” Choate said, “those guys stepped up to the occasion.”
When some of their best offensive weapons were periodically missing time due to injury, the Bobcats found others to contribute. But they didn’t have to worry about that Saturday. Travis Jonsen, after missing last week's game, made his impact clear when he turned a busted play into a 75-yard touchdown run. As UC Davis defenders closed in on him, he darted and weaved around them before he found the end zone. His touchdown gave MSU a 14-10 lead in the second quarter.
Of Rovig’s 217 air yards, 196 were to Kassis and Jonsen, who caught three passes for 61 yards.
“Today, it’s just good to be back,” Jonsen said. “A great overall win. Shout out to the offense, the defense … good win.”
Gilliam nearly willed the Aggies to victory. He spun, juked, stutter stepped and stiff armed his way through many potential tacklers on his way to 133 rushing yards and two touchdowns. His second gave UC Davis (5-6, 3-4) a 17-14 lead late in the third quarter.
But the Bobcats didn’t break. They didn’t allow the Aggies to score again.
Maier, who was tied for sixth in the country in touchdown passes, didn’t throw one Saturday. He completed 33 of his 50 passes to 10 different players for 273 yards. He became UC Davis’ all-time passing leader. But none of his throws were for points.
And defensively, the Bobcats allowed the Aggies to convert just 2 of 17 third and fourth downs. That kept Maier and his dangerous passing offense off the field as the Bobcats held the ball for 11 more minutes than UC Davis.
“(MSU defensive coordinator) Kane (Ioane) and the job that they did on defense, very rare was it that Jake knew where he was going with the ball,” Choate said. “He had to hold the ball a lot, check the ball down a lot.”
And Bobcats running back Isaiah Ifanse made his impact late. He’s occasionally seen the field depending on how he feels while recovering from injury, but he looked like the player who rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman last season.
He bounced off tackles and showed he’s feeling better. He finished the night with 10 carries, 77 yards and a go-ahead touchdown with less than nine minutes remaining.
“He’s a difference maker,” Choate said. “I think everybody saw the type of player that young man is a year ago. And we’ve been without him. … Having Isaiah back is a nice thing.”
The Bobcats followed their normal formula. They rushed for 284 yards and minimized their opponent’s scoring.
Now with eight Division I wins, the Bobcats will likely play after the regular season is over. Now they have momentum on their side. Now they’re riding a three-game winning streak going into their rivalry game against Montana.
But Choate didn’t want to worry about it just yet. He just wanted to think about the present.
The Bobcats are happy with where they are.