UC Davis has been among the Big Sky’s most successful football programs during Dan Hawkins’ time there.
But there’s one thing the Aggies just can’t seem to do, and that is beat the Eastern Washington Eagles.
After a year off, their series resumes Saturday in California, where the Eagles (1-2) and 15th-ranked Aggies (2-1) open Big Sky play.
“It’s a mad dash in this league,” Hawkins said during his media availability this week. “It’s a very good league with a lot of football teams.”
Hawkins pointed out that in his six-plus seasons at Davis none of his teams’ 39 wins – but five of its 28 losses – have come against Eastern.
“We’ve had some close matches but haven’t done it,” he said.
Hawkins is not the only Davis coach who could express a similar sentiment: Eastern is 10-0 in the programs’ all-time series.
The Eagles’ most recent wins over the Aggies have come at crucial junctures, the past four of which pitted two highly ranked teams. There was the Eagles’ 38-20 victory on Nov. 13, 2021, that ended Eastern’s two-game losing streak and dashed the Aggies’ hopes for a Big Sky championship.
Just seven months earlier, in the spring 2021 season, Eastern won 32-22 at Davis to boost its playoff resume and spoil the Aggies’ chances.
Then there were the two Eastern wins in the 2018 season – one late in the regular season and another in the FCS playoff quarterfinals.
Again this year, their almost-annual matchup comes at a critical juncture for each team, though this is the earliest they have played in a season since Davis joined the Big Sky for football in 2012.
Eastern is coming off its first victory, a 40-29 nonconference home win over Southeastern Louisiana. The Aggies’ two wins this year have come in a 48-10 victory at Texas A&M Commerce – in its second year as an FCS team – and in a 23-21 home victory against Southern Utah last week.
“(I am) excited to see where we go,” EWU coach Aaron Best said during media availability Tuesday, “to try to find our first win on the road, and it’s a little more important now that it’s in conference.”
Best, who is 45-27 as a head coach, and Hawkins are among the longest-tenured – and winningest – current head coaches in the Big Sky. Their longevity at their programs and in the sport generally has fostered crossover between the two programs. For example, EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Copp and EWU cornerbacks coach Wes Nurse both played for Hawkins when he was coaching at Boise State in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Copp and Nurse later coached at Davis, the latter alongside Hawkins in 2017 and 2018. EWU linebackers coach Eric Sanders had a stint as Aggies linebackers coach in 2008 and 2009.
“(There is) a lot of familiarity from the coordinators and position coaches,” Hawkins said, “and guys I’ve coached and played for me and guys that have coached here, for sure.”
That time together helped create a mutual respect, one that Copp said is clear when he watches film on the Aggies.
“The biggest problem they present is, obviously they’re very well coached,” Copp said Monday, “… (and) they’ve got some tremendous players.”
Aggies junior running back Lan Larison, a first-team All-Big Sky selection in 2022 as a special teams player, ranks fifth in the conference this year in rushing with 224 yards and three scores on 48 carries. The team’s passing game this year hasn’t been as effective – junior Miles Hastings’ ranks 10th in the Big Sky in passing efficiency – but Hastings was also the first-team all-conference quarterback last year.
The Eagles will also look to contain wide receiver Trent Tompkins, who leads the team with 13 receptions and 127 yards – followed closely by Larison, who has 11 catches for 118 yards and another score. Larison has also completed 2 of 3 passing attempts for 23 yards.
“They use Tompkins all over the field, and (Larison) is one of the best players in the Big Sky Conference,” Copp said. “(Larison) runs the ball, he throws the ball, he catches the ball, and he probably does it as well as anyone on their football team.”
Hawkins said he was also impressed by what he saw when he looked at film on Eastern.
“They’ve reloaded,” he said. “They’re right back where they’ve got another Cooper Kupp-like guy, their quarterback can run and he’s accurate and leading the conference in passing. Those guys have done a nice job coaching and a nice job recruiting.”
The Kupp comment was a reference to Efton Chism III, the Eagles’ junior receiver who leads the Big Sky with 26 receptions and ranks third with 256 yards. The quarterback is redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas, whose 849 passing yards, 83 completions and 132 attempts all lead the conference.
Best said the Eagles have found their footing on both sides of the ball, but he pointed out that three games is a small sample size. He wants to see how the team responds with higher stakes.
“We’re certainly giddy that we won,” Best said. “We can’t be too giddy and let a win let us lose.”