2005 Look Ahead: UC Davis

Gone from the 2005 schedule is traditional foe San Jose State, and in their place is another Northern California upstart. The UC Davis Aggies will come calling to Stanford Stadium on September 17 in what will be the biggest game their program has played in decades. Cardinal fans will eye the affair as an afterthought. Is this Stanford home opener a landmine lying in wait?

UC Davis Aggies

First Down: Quick Hitters

UC Davis @ Stanford – September 17

Last Meeting: Stanford 59, UC Davis 0 ('32)

Side-by-Side Stats: (UCD/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 6/10
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game: 114/81
2004 Passing Yards Per Game: 288/246
Returning Defensive Starters: 4/5
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 113/143
2004 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 234/249
2004 Record: 6-4/4-7
Vegas' Predicted 2005 Record: N/A / 4-7

Second Down: Offense

The offense looks to be an aerial powerhouse by Division I-AA standards, but a bit of a question on the ground.

Junior Jon Grant returns as quarterback after a dynamic sophomore season in which he threw for 259 yards per game with an astronomic efficiency rating of 143.  Grant earned First Team All-Great West Football Conference honors for his sophomore year, yet his honor was topped by that of one of his offensive teammates.

No offense to Grant, but senior tight end Daniel Fells is the primary star of the offense.  Fells snagged 35 passes for 520 yards last season, and he was rewarded for his 2004 efforts by being named a 2005 Preseason First Team All-American.  At 6'4", Fells' size gives plenty of Division 1-AA defenders fits and should prove a challenging matchup for the Cardinal back seven.

The receiving corps is similarly loaded, which is even more valuable in the Aggies' spread offense.  Off an All-GWFC Honorable Mention season, junior Tony Kays headlines a receiving corps that will prominently feature several underclassmen and #2 senior tight end Aaron Hines.

Three starters return on a line that figures to regress significantly from last season.  The two departures off the line, tackle Cory Lekkerkerker and center Marc Manfredda, both made it to NFL training camps, no small feat for players from Davis.  Even with their presence last season, the team ran for only 114 yards per game and no individual rusher topped 500 yards, so it's hard to see those numbers improving with the two top linemen now gone.

The tailback position doesn't inspire confidence either, as the Aggies have opted for a committee approach.  Three halfbacks each received at least five touches in the season-opening 17-13 loss to New Hampshire, and none shone as the team garnered only three yards per carry.  Defending the Aggies' ground attack should be the one area where the difference between Pac-10 caliber players and Division I-AA players most works in Stanford's favor when the two teams square off.

Third Down: Defense

In perfect contrast with the offense, the defense should have far more problems in the air than on the ground.

The unit comes off a strong 2004, posting two shutouts on the season.  For the Aggies to achieve their 36th consecutive winning season this year, a defense that returns only four starters will need to turn in a similarly inspired performance.

Two starters return on the line and two more return in the linebacking corps – good news for a team that allowed just 113 ground yards per game last season.  Senior defensive end Pila Fatukala, though undersized at 242 pounds, was named Second Team All-GWFC after leading the team with five sacks last season.  Fatukala and senior defensive tackle and co-captain Ryan Sharp will lead the defensive line as the only returning starters in the front four, though sophomore James Amos looks to be a dominant force as well.

The pair of returning linebackers is undersized, as well, averaging 5-10, 210.  Yet, like Fatukala in front of them, senior Ben Reece and senior co-captain and 2004 Second Team All-GWFC Dan Elbanna have proven themselves on a Divison I-AA level.  Elbanna once earned national player of the week honors, and the duo paced the team in tackles last season.  Credentials and Division I-AA success notwithstanding, Stanford should have a significant size advantage against this front seven, so it will be up to the backs and the big uglies up front to exploit it.

On the positive side, this secondary should make its way onto lots of highlight reels.  On the negative side, the highlights more often than not may be of big offensive plays against a unit that returns no starters from a relatively poor performance in 2004.  At least the secondary will have size on many of the wide receivers they'll face (though not Stanford's) as they average over six feet tall.  To be fair, though that defensive backfield picture looks bleak, head coach Bob Biggs does sport a .727 winning percentage in his dozen years as the UC Davis head coach, so I wouldn't bet against him finding a way this season as well.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- New Hampshire 17, UC Davis 13 – This past Saturday, the Aggies dropped their season opener in a heartbreaker, as the teams combined for three touchdowns in the final four minutes, including New Hampshire's game-winner with just 35 seconds showing on the clock.

- Despite picking up an "L", Davis saw plenty to be proud of in its season-opener.  First, New Hampshire was the preseason #7 Division I-AA team in the country; that the unranked Aggies led with less than a minute to play is notable.  Second, even though UC Davis did lose, they outplayed their visitors in several key regards.  The Aggies posted more first downs, rushing yards and total yards than their foe, and, most impressively, held the ball for over 35 minutes in the hard-fought loss.

- On the other hand, Davis has plenty to correct as it also committed five turnovers, missed an extra point and a field goal, and scored on only two of five red zone trips.

- UC Davis is in the midst of a four-year transition from Division II to Division I-AA.  The fact that they just notched their 35th consecutive winning season against increasingly difficult opponents speaks to the consistent health of the program.

- Though the teams haven't met since 1935, Stanford does have some familiarity with the Aggies, as the Cardinal hosted their northern neighbors for a scrimmage prior to the 2003 season.

- UC Davis hasn't played a Divison I-A opponent since 1997, when the Idaho Vandals pasted them 44-14.

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