Hornets tackle FCS playoff test

Junior linebacker Marcus Hawkins leads the Hornets in tackles with 72.

Marcus Hawkins’ practice jersey has had better days. There is barely enough of it remaining after four months to cover the Sacramento State linebacker’s shoulder pads. At least the junior will not be wearing it Saturday when the Hornets make their debut in the FCS playoffs by hosting Austin Peay at 6 p.m.

Sacramento State (9-3) earned a first-round bye as co-champion of the Big Sky Conference. Austin Peay (9-3) advanced by beating Furman 42-6. The winner will face either Albany (N.Y.)  or Montana. Sacramento State jumped to No. 7 in the FCS rankings after mauling then-No. 5 Montana 49-27 on Oct. 19. 

This was just two weeks after Sacramento State upset then-No. 22 Eastern Washington 48-27 to end a 16-game losing streak against Top 25 opponents. The Hornets followed with a 34-21 win at then-No. 6 Montana State to crack the rankings for the first time at No. 15. They are seeded fourth in the playoffs.

A win will send Sacramento State into the quarterfinals, so Hawkins had better hope his practice jersey can survive another week. That will not be his only concern. He has played with a cast on his right hand since dislocating his little finger Nov. 9 in the Hornets’ 38-24 win at Northern Arizona.

Hawkins left that game without a tackle, the only time the Fresno City College transfer has been shut out this season. He had one tackle Nov. 16 at Idaho in his first game with the cast on his hand. Hawkins laughed when asked if being one-handed had anything to do with his low tackle total in the 31-7 win. The Hornets had come to expect more from Hawkins, who had seven or more tackles in six of the first nine games. One tackle was enough for the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Hawkins as long as the team prevailed.

“It had nothing to do with the hand,” Hawkins said of his performance against the Vandals. “I think they scored seven (points), It was almost a shutout for us, so I was happy. The win is more important.”

Any doubts about Hawkins were erased Nov. 23 when he had a team-high 10 tackles and a sack against UC Davis in the 66th annual Causeway Classic. Sacramento State won 27-17 in front of 19,000 fans at Hornet Stadium to clinch a share of the Big Sky championship and an automatic playoff bid.

Those 10 tackles increased Hawkins’ season total to a team-leading 72. He was a second-team selection to the All-Big Sky team. Sacramento State had a school-record 15 players selected, with junior Kevin Thomson becoming the first Hornets quarterback to be named the Offensive Player of the Year.

Thomson and Hawkins have nothing in common except their jersey numbers. Both wear No. 5, which was Hawkins’ number at Sunnyside High and and in his sophomore season at Fresno City. Hawkins thought he would have to settle for No. 9, which is the number he wears in practice, until learning a second No. 5 jersey had come into being. 

Hawkins could not resist despite the risk of being mistaken as Thomson. There is little chance of that happening, however, unless Thomson grows his hair out and dyes it blonde. And then there is the matter of the cast on Hawkins’ right hand. Thomson is right-handed. He will gladly leave that to Hawkins.