In one of their two losses before rattling off their current eight-game win streak, the San Diego Toreros (9-2, 8-0 Pioneer) fell handily to the Big Sky’s eighth-place finisher, the UC Davis Aggies (5-6, 3-5 Big Sky).
A 35-7 victory in northern California, the Aggies rolled off 28 straight points following a 7-7 first quarter. And while the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (7-4, 6-2 Big Sky) led UC Davis 35-7 en route to their 45-31 victory in Flagstaff a month ago, head coach Jerome Souers warned against simply applying the transitive property.
“We have seen what Davis did and their offense is not a whole lot different than ours,” Souers said. “What I think happened early is they didn’t know about Davis. Davis had a new system and they didn’t have 11 or 12 games like they have on us.”
Led by former Northern Arizona offensive coordinator Tim Plough, the Aggies rolled up more than 500 yards of offense and forced the Toreros into their worst performance of the year. Scoring a season-low seven points and allowing a season-high 35, San Diego’s quarterback Anthony Lawrence threw for just 150 yards on 15 of 25 passing, well off his season totals of 216 of 321 passing for 2,796 yards, 30 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Likewise, senior receiver Justin Priest mustered just three catches for 39 yards and senior tight end Ross Dwelley finished with one 14-yard catch.
The two finished as favorite targets for the junior Lawrence, with Priest at 66 catches for 954 yards and 12 touchdowns while Dwelley added 41 catches for 562 yards and eight scores.
Playing in the Pioneer Football League, an 11-team conference of schools from across the nation electing not to offer scholarships for football, San Diego rolled to the FCS’s weakest automatic bid.
Both Souers and defensive coordinator Andy Thompson likened San Diego’s balanced offense to that of another former Lumberjacks offensive coordinator. Backed by a few talented tight ends and star running back Zach Bauman, Rich Scangarello’s offense maintained control of the ball while avoiding mistakes.
“They can throw the ball, they can run the ball and any time an offense is really balanced, it is really hard for a defense,” Thompson said. “You have to be honest on first down on the run and the pass. In a breakdown that we do, they are 48 percent run, 48 percent pass and 2 percent screen -- that’s about as balanced as you get.”
Freshman running back Emilio Martinez finished with 164 carries, 894 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, adding another 158 yards on 18 receptions.
Second in the FCS with 39.0 points per game and 10th in scoring defense with 16.3, San Diego blew out all of its conference foes. Just one Pioneer victory came by less than 20 points, with the other top contenders in the league winning nonconference games against NCAA Division II, Division III and NAIA members. San Diego’s lone nonconference win came against D-II Western New Mexico, who finished its season 4-7.
Despite its perceived lack of top-level competition, San Diego enters Flagstaff with the respect of Souers, based on what he has seen the school achieve through the years.
“They are a very smart football team, they are very well coached and that goes back to when Harbaugh was there,” Souers said of San Diego, where current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh called home from 2004-06. “The tradition that they have, the legacy he left behind, they know how to win and they do it by playing smart football.”
Last season, San Diego knocked off No. 20-ranked Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo 35-21 for the Pioneer League’s first ever FCS playoff victory.
“We respect them, we know that they are like any other Big Sky team,” Souers said. “They will beat you if you don’t bring your best and they did that last year against Cal Poly.”
Using their balance to set up what Souers called a really smart play-action game, San Diego enters Saturday as the FCS’s best third-down offense at 51.8 percent.
“That’s been the key defensively for us all year, if we can get people into third-and-long, that’s when we can try to create takeaways. That starts on first down, not letting them have yards after contact and stopping the run better than we have in recent weeks. It’s a totally different animal because they don't run the quarterback and we have seen so much of that lately,” said Thompson, who best equated San Diego’s style to Illinois State, who Northern Arizona faced in early October.