MOSCOW, Idaho – Honoring late teammate Collin Sather on senior day was the most satisfying thing the Idaho Vandals did Saturday.
Losing their first home game in their final home game of the season to UC Davis no doubt left them frustrated and chagrined.
The Aggies manhandled Idaho 44-26 on both sides of the ball, building a 31-7 halftime lead. The Vandals made a bid to get back into contention with two quick touchdowns in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 31-19, but they drew no closer.
The loss probably steepened their climb to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. With one regular-season game remaining against Idaho State on Saturday, Idaho is 6-4 overall and 5-2 and in third place in the Big Sky Conference. UC Davis is tied with the Vandals for both marks and ran its current win streak to five games .
All Vandals players wore a No. 82 helmet decal, which was going to be Sather’s number before he lost a battle to cancer in the preseason camp of his freshman year. Senior tight end Connor Whitney also traded his No. 12 jersey for 82, since he and Sather were teammates and best friends at West Valley High School. While wearing No. 82, Whitney caught two passes for 14 yards and recovered a squib kick and returned it 5 yards.
J.D. Johnson, Idaho football’s director of operations, and John Grove, assistant athletics director for equipment operations, were behind the effort to remember Sather, Whitney said.
“I jumped all over it,” Whitney said when he was approached about wearing Sather’s number.
“It was a little hard at first. Today came, and I put it on for the first time. Wow. I’m really doing this. It was pretty emotional.”
Whitney said jogging on to the field and seeing his family and Sather’s family waiting there to greet him “was a flashback back to high school basketball and football senior nights. It was like he was there with us.”
Idaho coach Jason Eck said he was proud of the way Idaho competed in the second half.
“In the first half, we were outplayed and outcoached in all three phases,” Eck said. “That was on me.”
The Aggies’ offensive line regularly pushed the line of scrimmage into the laps of Idaho’s linebackers in the first half, which cleared the way for Big Sky second-leading rusher Ulonzo Gilliam to pile up 140 yards rushing and score two touchdowns in the half.
Gilliam was the game’s leading rusher, but he was held to 33 yards and one touchdown in the second half in finishing with 173 yards and three scores on 31 carries.
“We figured out how we wanted to respond to their pin and pull,” in which Gilliam followed pulling linemen until he found a cutback lane, Vandals senior defensive tackle Nate DeGraw said about Idaho’s relative success in slowing Gilliam down in the second half.
“He’s a really good running back, and he was following his blockers.”
Idaho’s offense sparked to life in the second half. Quarterback Gevani McCoy completed 15 of 23 passes for 150 yards and ran for a touchdown in the first half, but he finished the game with 28 completions on 39 attempts for 345 yards. In the third quarter, he also threw a pair of touchdown passes to Hayden Hatten, an 18-yard pass on third-and-9, and a 5-yard pass on third-and-goal. Idaho went for and failed on 2-point conversions on both touchdowns.
Hatten was Idaho’s leading receiver with 13 catches for 126 yards and the touchdowns. Jermaine Jackson made six receptions for 118 yards
With Idaho trailing 34-19, McCoy was sacked on back-to-back plays at the end of the third quarter by defensive end Zach Kennedy. An incomplete pass to Hatten on third down opened the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-26, McCoy ran and might have made a first down if the play had not been negated by an Idaho holding penalty.
“They stopped us on fourth down. That was a big play,” Eck said.
The Aggies scored in four plays on their first series, with Gilliam setting the tone on the opening play with a 24-yard run. Lan Larison got the Aggies on the scoreboard with a 34-yard dash around left end.
It took UC Davis 11 plays to find the end zone on its next possession. Gilliam completed the drive with a 1-yard run.
The Vandals steadied themselves with an 84-yard drive that concluded with McCoy getting to the left corner on what looked like a designed run and scoring from 12 yards out with 1:48 remaining in first quarter.
Again, the Aggies answered, going 75 yards on a drive that featured Trent Tompkins on a 10-yard run to the Vandals 37-yard line, and from the 32-yard line Gilliam battering through the middle of Idaho’s defense to the two-yard line. From there, Tompkins started left and cut up the middle to score.
After the play he picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Isaiah Gomez advanced the lead to 24-7 with a 30-yard field goal, and Gilliam completed the first half scoring with his second touchdown, a one-yard dive, to send Idaho into the locker room at halftime reeling from a 31-7 deficit.
In the second half, UCD scored on 34-yard and 38-yard field goals from Isaiah Gomez and Gilliam’s final touchdown.
DeGraw said the Vandals will turn the corner on their loss and aim toward their final regular season game.
“I think we are going to be ready to play Idaho State,” he said. As for the UCD defeat, “pouting about it is not going to change the score.”