UC Davis football 2 (copy)

UC Davis running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr., shown here in a 2019 game against Lehigh, leads the Big Sky Conference with 103 yards rushing per game this season.

After a brutal last-minute loss to Eastern Washington on March 13, Idaho State head football coach Rob Phenicie needed the bye week to unwind.

“Even Monday, I told my wife, ‘I’ve to get over this one,’” Phenicie said. “Thank God we did have a bye and didn’t have to prepare for another opponent, because it would have been hard to focus.”

With that in the rearview mirror, the Bengals will open up the second half of their six-game Big Sky Conference schedule against a team that’s been one of the biggest surprises of the shortened spring slate, the UC Davis Aggies.

Before the season, the Big Sky was generally understood to be Weber State as the clear favorite, followed by a bunch of teams — Eastern Washington, Idaho and the Aggies chief among them — with some potential but a lot to prove.

In the first preseason poll, Weber State was No. 4, Eastern No. 12, and UC Davis and Idaho both received negligible amounts of votes.

The week after, the Aggies received the fewest votes (seven) out of any team in the poll. But since then, they’ve been climbing — 23rd after beating then-No. 19 Idaho in their season opener, 21st after taking Weber to the wire in an 18-13 loss, and 15th this week after their finest performance of the season, a 73-24 dismantling of Cal Poly in the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe.

Big Sky title contenders Montana and Montana State opting out of the spring season opened a power vacuum in the conference below Weber State — and so far, the Aggies have done more than any team to fill it.

“They definitely had our attention before, but way more so now,” Phenicie said.

That has implications for the spring, where UC Davis is now the favorite to take the at-large playoff spot that will likely go to the Big Sky’s runner-up — but also for the upcoming fall season.

With a full-strength Big Sky and hopefully a full-strength 24-team playoff field, the national conversation will be quite a bit more crowded in the fall than it is right now. The spring season — although coaches will insist that it’s just as important — is a bit of an appetizer, a test run for an FCS extravaganza in the fall — one that the Aggies have so far done as much as any team in the nation to set themselves up for.

In three games, they’ve likely raised themselves from a mid-tier Big Sky team to one that might be discussed as a true conference contender going into the fall.

That’s not an unfamiliar spot for Davis in recent years under former Boise State head coach Dan Hawkins, who was named Big Sky Coach of the Year in 2018 after taking the Aggies to their first-ever Big Sky title.

It’s just that not many people expected them to be back there so soon after stumbling to a 3-5 record in 2019 and losing all-conference quarterback Jake Maier.

But with Maier gone, the Aggies are making waves in the spring season with junior Hunter Rodrigues getting his first real experience under center.

Rodrigues appeared in six games and threw 21 total passes in two seasons as Maier’s understudy, but has emerged as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league this season after getting his chance to start.

He struggled against Weber State, completing under 50% of his passes for 139 yards with two interceptions, but has been lights out in the Aggies’ two wins — 23 of 29 for 243 yards and three touchdowns against Idaho, 19 of 23 for 265 yards and three more scores against Cal Poly.

Even with the dud against Weber State, he has the second-best completion percentage and efficiency rating among full-time starters in the Big Sky.

“Coach Hawkins will always have a guy ready to go,” Phenicie said. “Hunter Rodrigues is doing a great job. He doesn’t take chances and he works within the offense. It was fun to watch for a while there Saturday and then it’s like, oh, we have to go play these guys. We were kind of hoping for a letdown after Maier, but it ain’t gonna happen.”

UC Davis also has running back Ulonzo Gilliam. At 103 rushing yards per game, he’s averaging 15 more yards than other back in the conference.

On defense, Luka Nixon, Cole Hansen and Bryce Rodgers each have two sacks.

After giving up nearly 30 points a game in 2019, UC Davis hasn’t given up more than the 24 they surrendered against Cal Poly yet this season — and remember, the Aggies won that game by seven touchdowns.

Now Idaho State, which might have hoped to follow the same trajectory as the Aggies before the season, will have to slow down the UC Davis’ train.

“They’ve beaten Idaho, they’ve slugged it out with WSU all the way to the end, and then they really put it to Cal Poly,” Phenicie said. “We’ve got our hands full. They’re well-coached, they recruit well, and they have some very good players.”