BOZEMAN — UC Davis’ offensive line has allowed just 13 sacks this season, tied for second-fewest in the Big Sky Conference and an impressive number considering how many times star quarterback Jake Maier drops back to throw in a given game.
Montana State defensive end Bryce Sterk, who ranks No. 2 in the league with 11 individual sacks, knows that in order for the Bobcats to have success Saturday on the road at UC Davis, they must affect Maier in the pocket.
“The teams that beat them were usually the teams that could get to him and lay hits on him,” Sterk said.
The Montana and Weber State games are two examples. Those defenses combined to drop Maier six times, just under half of the aforementioned season total, and the offense was handcuffed with six combined turnovers.
It’s been a disappointing season at times for Maier and the Aggies, who are 5-5 overall and 3-3 in Big Sky games entering this week’s contest. UC Davis was projected to finish second in the league standings in the preseason, but FCS losses to North Dakota State, North Dakota and the Grizzlies and Wildcats hurt its chances to repeat or exceed last year’s 10-win campaign that ended in the playoff quarterfinals.
“I feel like we’ve played below our standard and really didn’t meet our own expectations in a couple games,” Maier said during a phone interview Thursday afternoon.
“We’ve just got to execute better in some of these big games. Because our opponent will. When you’re playing a top-10 or top-five opponent, they’re going to play well. If you don’t make plays then it could be a long one for you. It definitely has been like that for us in a couple instances.”
Saturday marks another one of those games. The Bobcats (7-3, 4-2 Big Sky) come in as the No. 10-ranked team in this week’s STATS FCS Top 25 poll.
Both teams remain in the playoff conversation, and the winner will take a big step toward that goal.
Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said Maier, a senior and a three-year starter at QB, “is one of the best I’ve seen in the country at any level,” and the numbers bear that out despite the Aggies’ seesawing season.
Maier is tied for the lead in the Big Sky with 27 touchdown passes. He is completing 66.3% of his passes, and his 3,057 yards rank third in the conference. He comes into the game just 89 yards shy of breaking the school record for career passing yards (10,745).
Maier and the Aggies are coming off their best offensive showing of the season in a road victory at Portland State, when they put up 649 total yards.
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“He’s a very accurate passer,” Choate said of Maier. “He can throw from a variety of arm slots, a variety of platforms, meaning he doesn’t have to have his feet necessarily set underneath him all the time to be able to throw accurately. And that makes him dangerous.”
But it’s never been about statistics or personal accolades for Maier, who was an All-American last season. He’s as team-oriented as any quarterback you’ll come across, especially as the season hangs in the balance.
“For the most part our team is really battling, and the care and the want-to within the team right now is really high,” said Maier, who transferred to UC Davis after one season at Long Beach City College in California. “It always is. The belief here in the last month of the year is great.”
The Aggies started the season with a respectable loss at FBS Cal. After two wins they went toe to toe with reigning FCS champion NDSU at the Fargodome, then came home and suffered a 25-point defeat at the hands of Montana.
A week later they were beaten on the road by North Dakota, then won two straight before being shut down by Weber State.
UC Davis has faced a daunting schedule this year and, in Maier’s opinion, didn’t fully answer the call. He hopes that changes against the Bobcats.
“We know the test that’s in front of us,” Maier said. “Ultimately we just want to play well against a good opponent at home on Senior Day. That means a lot to us, just to put our best foot forward.
“We don’t have a lot of opportunities left here at the end of the season, and we want to make sure that we’re finishing the season the right way whether it’s making the playoffs or not. We have a job to play the right way and play our brand of football regardless of what our record is or what our opponent’s record is.”
After this week, the Bobcats return home for their 119th meeting with archrival Montana. UC Davis will travel across town to face Sacramento State.
There’s still so much to be decided.
“You try to stay away from all the hypotheticals and the predictions,” Maier said. “But one thing we do know for sure is that we’re playing meaningful football games in November. If you ask any team, I think that’s super important, to be still in it, still in the fight.
“We’re just trying to stay in the fight.”