It was homecoming in South Dakota. There were 9,884 people packed inside the DakotaDome. The UC Davis players were dressing out on the sidelines because the visiting locker room was too small.
Not much was on the Aggies’ side last week in Vermillion, S.D., but as the introductions were happening for the home team, the UC Davis football team had a long time to sit, think and focus.
“The locker room was 10 (feet) by 10 (feet),” said first-year defensive coordinator Mark Johnson. “Our whole crew couldn’t get in there, so there were guys dressing out in the crowd and on the sideline. There were people in the stands and stuff going on everywhere and our guys were pulling their stuff on.
“The band was playing and they were introducing everybody. Our guys were just sitting there. There was a quiet focus about them.”
That time to focus may have been the turning point of the season for the UC Davis defensive and team as a whole as it gutted out the 24-23 overtime victory.
“Our guys battled,” Johnson said. “I told them you are going to have to do whatever it takes to win this game and they did.”
The Aggies did everything they needed to and one week later, that same team was hitting on all cylinders during its homecoming celebration.
“I just think that they are really locked in,” Johnson said. “The more repetitions, the better they are going to get at our system. It’s not much different than what coach [Lou] Bronzan was instilling in them, but it is a little bit. They have picked it up and ran with it.”
UC Davis showed what it has learned as it manhandled Winston-Salem State 45-14 on Saturday, scoring touchdowns in all three facets of the game.
The Aggie defensive unit played particularly well, as it recorded seven tackles for a loss, five sacks, three forced fumbles – one of which was ran back for a touchdown – and two interceptions.
To give you an even better idea of how well the Aggie defense was playing, one of Winston-Salem State’s two touchdowns was scored after a UC Davis player stripped the ball from the opposing running back, allowing a Rams player to pounce on it in the end zone.
“That’s the way defense is supposed to work,” said head coach Bob Biggs. “Everybody has a responsibility. Everybody is assigned a gap. All year long defensively, I feel like we have been flying around the field and that’s what you saw tonight. Everybody was getting to the ball carrier.”
The UC Davis defense is playing with a whole new purpose, Johnson said.
“After the Boise State game,” Johnson said, “I pulled the defense in and said, ‘Great job. We did the best we could do.’ I prefaced it with ‘never accept losing,’ but I’m saying you are working the right way. I stepped back and one of my kids came over and said, ‘Coach, I am sick and tired of this moral victory stuff. How do we do this? How do we win these games?’”
“I said the only way I know how to do this is to keep your head down, keep walking forward, and do exactly what we need to do every week to win,” Johnson said. “They are doing exactly what they need to do right now.”
Co-captain and linebacker Mike Morales shared the enthusiasm of his coaches after the dominating victory.
“We blitzed all night,” Morales said. “Our goal was to just go at them. We just played our defense, flew around, hit the quarterback and forced some turnovers. It felt good to get the win and get the turnovers.”
Still, Morales doesn’t plan on stopping at Saturday’s game, believing the Aggies still have a lot of work to do with five games remaining on the schedule
“Every day, we try to get a little bit better and this is a product of it,” Morales said. “This isn’t the final product.”
Johnson shares the same sentiment as Morales, quoting former Pittsburgh Steelers great “Mean Joe” Green to get his point across.
“[Green] said, ‘I have the perfect game in my repertoire. I know myself and my teammates have the ability to play the perfect game, and until we reach that, I will never be satisfied,’” Johnson said. “If we can keep thinking that way and driving for it, then we have got a chance.”
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