ISU football: Similarities abound in Idaho State-UC Davis showdown
POCATELLO — As Idaho State hits the road following a pair of home games, few are questioning what Saturday’s game flow will look like.
Two of the top offenses in the FCS go head to head this weekend, and both are undefeated in Big Sky Conference play.
UC Davis (4-1, 2-0 Big Sky) and Idaho State (4-1, 3-0 Big Sky) are upstart programs in similar spots at the midway point of their seasons. The 14th-ranked Aggies are off to their best start since 2004, including their first 2-0 record in conference play since joining the Big Sky in 2012. UC Davis’ top-15 ranking is also its highest in the program’s Division I era (2007-present).
Here is a broader look at the Aggies, who host the Bengals for homecoming on Saturday at 5 p.m. MDT.
WIDE RECEIVER DOSS TOUTED AS NFL PROSPECT
Aggies redshirt senior wideout Keelan Doss rewrote the program’s receiving record book last season, and is projected to be in the NFL this time next year.
In fact, Doss’ decision to return to college football was a surprise to many after his output last season.
The 6-foot-3, 209-pound pass-catcher led the FCS with 10.5 catches and 136.3 yards receiving per game last season — numbers that would have also led the FBS — and set program records with 115 receptions and 1,499 yards, among others.
Doss ended the 2017 campaign as a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, honoring the top FCS football player, was named the Big Sky’s Offensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.
Doss is off to another strong start this season, ranking first in the Big Sky and fourth in the FCS with 8.6 receptions per game. He has gone over 100 yards three times, including against Stanford of the Pac-12 Conference.
In total, Doss has 43 receptions for 414 yards and two touchdowns this season. He has puzzling home-and-away splits, as he averages 11.7 receptions and 114.7 yards per road game, against four catches and 36.5 yards per home game.
In UC Davis’ 56-17 rout of ISU last season in Pocatello, Doss made 11 grabs for 112 yards.
AGGIES SPORT FBS WIN
UC Davis opened its season with a 44-38 road win against San Jose State of the Mountain West Conference.
In a shootout that saw the teams combine for 1,095 yards of offense, UC Davis led by as many as 16 points en route to the Aggies’ third FBS win in school history.
Two weeks later, UC Davis hung with Stanford in a 30-10 road loss. The Aggies led the then-ninth-ranked Cardinal 3-0 after the opening quarter.
The Aggies also waxed San Diego 54-21, a year after the Toreros advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs.
“They’re very good,” Bengals coach Rob Phenicie said Monday. “I’ve said it all along, they are one of the top two or three teams in the conference.”
MAIER, GILLIAM ROUND OUT EXPLOSIVE OFFENSE
UC Davis ranks just behind ISU in total offense (481 yards per game) and scoring offense (40.2 points per game), ranking ninth and 14th, respectively, in the FCS.
Redshirt junior quarterback Jake Maier leads the operation as a reigning third-team all-Big Sky signal-caller and 2017 Big Sky Newcomer of the Year. The former Long Beach City College transfer leads the conference with 1,580 yards passing, to go with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Maier breezed through ISU’s defense for 358 yards and three touchdowns last season. He and Doss form a lethal one-two punch to lead Davis’ offense.
“They do a great job getting Doss all over the field and getting the matchup that they want,” Phenicie said. “The quarterback is extremely accurate, extremely efficient. Gets the ball out of his hands fast. It’s hard to get to him.”
Balancing the Aggies’ prolific passing attack is redshirt freshman running back Ulonzo Gilliam.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound ball-carrier is tied for the Big Sky lead with eight touchdowns (six rushing, two receiving), and burst onto the scene with 132 yards rushing in his Davis debut against San Jose State.
Gilliam is also second on the team with 21 catches. He’s complemented in the backfield by 5-foot-11, 215-pound back Tehran Thomas and his 216 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns.
Luckily for ISU’s defense, it regularly practices against an offense that mirrors Davis’ capabilities.
“We’re going to go on the practice field, prepare against one of the better offenses in the conference, which we get a chance to do not only this week, but every week,” Bengals linebacker Joe Martin said Monday. “We get to see stuff like that every year. It’ll be good for us.”
DEFENSIVE NUMBERS MISLEADING
UC Davis’ stats say the Aggies sport the best run defense and the worst pass defense in the Big Sky.
Davis holds opponents to 105.2 yards rushing per game, including a league-best 3 yards per carry. On the flip side, opponents pass for a Big Sky-high 312.2 yards per game on the Aggies.
But upon further examination, UC Davis’ early-game leads may dictate game flow and thus affect opponents’ play-calling. The Aggies have faced the fewest run plays and the most pass plays of any team in the Big Sky, as they have led or been tied at the end of the first quarter in each game this season.
UC Davis is second in the Big Sky with an average turnover margin of plus-1.6 per game, first in opponent third-down percentage (33) and second in interceptions (nine).
“They do a really good job of disguising where they’re coming from,” Phenicie said. “They’re going to bring a lot of edge pressure, and they’re not going to overload you with blitz. They do a great job of bringing it from different places of the field, and you’ve got to somehow decipher where it’s coming from and get things directed that way.”