Losing not getting Brown down

Faith might be about all Michael Brown has left in his first year at the University of Washington. The Vacaville High School graduate has to believe better days are ahead for the Huskies because this season turned sour long before its expiration date. Washington will need to win two of its remaining three Pac-12 games to avoid matching its worst conference finish since 2011.

And this is a program that in 2018 finished 20-10 in the Pac-12 and advanced to the College World Series. The cupboard may not be bare at Washington, but there is only a few cans of dog food left. They are Huskies after all and have done little else this season than learn how to play dead. Even if Washington sweeps Washington State to end the season, the Huskies (19-28, 5-19 Pac-12) will finish with their fewest wins since going 17-37 in 2011.

Michael Brown was a big reason why Vacaville won its second consecutive section title in 2019.

The Huskies had a bit of bark in them Saturday when they pulled out a 2-1 victory over Utah to snap a 10-game losing streak. Prevailing in a battle of Pac-12 bottom feeders is little cause for celebration, but the Huskies will take what they can get at this point. They followed with a 6-5 victory Sunday to win their first Pac-12 series since taking out of three against UCLA in April. The Bruins were ranked 10th at the time.

Shea Kramer, a 2017 Vacaville graduate, went 1-for-10 in the series for Utah. After belting his first home run of the season in the eighth inning Sunday, Kramer grounded out with the potential tying run at third base to end the game.

Having earned a degree in communications, Kramer will leave Utah after this season with one year of eligibility remaining and play elsewhere in 2022 as a graduate transfer. He is batting .238 this season, is second on the team in RBI with 29 and leads the Utes in triples with three – the first three of his college career.

“I’ve got more in me,” Kramer stated in a text message.

Much more is in store for Brown, who has faced four former Bulldogs in his freshman season. Kramer was the fourth, following Troy Claunch at Oregon State and the duo of Cole Elvis and Brian McClellin at Cal. Brown’s record against the four is 2-7, and he had nothing to do with two victories against Utah because he did not play in either game.

Brown was Washington’s designated hitter in the series opener Friday and went 1-for-4 to extend his hitting streak to a season-high four games. He struck out twice, raising his season total to 39. He is third on the team in strikeouts despite having far fewer at-bats (95) than the two players ahead of him – Christian Jones (56 strikeouts in 135 at-bats) and Will Simpson (47 in 156). Brown is batting .189, the lowest average of eight Washington players with at least 90 at-bats.

Being the designated hitter, as Brown has been in starting 28 of the Huskies’ 47 games, gives him plenty of time between at-bats to dissect each of them. “I got through the at-bat in my head, what I did right or what I did wrong,” he said. “Then you have to leave it behind and cheer on the next guy.”

A freshman such as Brown could fall into the trap of pressing at the plate to prove his worth, but Brown balked at such talk. “You can’t try to do too much,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the win. I have to do what I can to contribute to that.”

It is all about winning. Brown remembers that from 2019 when Vacaville High set a school record with 31 victories in 33 games and claimed its second consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship. Brown’s senior season and the Bulldogs’ shot at a three-peat in 2020 came to an abrupt end with the spread of COVID-19.

A pandemic might not be enough to stop the Huskies in 2022 if Brown has anything to say about it “We’re never giving up. We’re never quitting. It’s that brotherhood. We play for each other,” he said. “This (season) is only going to make us stronger. We’re going to finish this year strong and come back next year with our hair on fire. I have no doubts.”

Faith can be that powerful.

Jones or Lance? Draft dilemma

Offensive coordinator Tim Plough left UC Davis for the same job at Boise State.

Smoke screens are as much a part of the NFL Draft as Mel Kiper Jr. and Mr. Irrelevant, the dubious distinction bestowed on the last player selected in the seventh and final round of the annual college harvest. The smoke in the 2021 draft will have dissipated long before the 259th and last pick on Sunday.

The 49ers have been bellowing smoke since March 26 when they shipped the No. 12 pick in 2021, their 2022 and 2023 first-round picks and a 2022 third-rounder to the Dolphins for the No. 3 pick. The 49ers have parlayed their immediate future to select a quarterback has apparently captured their fancy.

Climbing nine picks to be in position to take Mac Jones, Trey Lance or Justin Fields did not come cheaply. Such a price must be an indication the 49ers are head over heels for one of them, but some draft experts claim the 49ers are two-timing Jones and Lance. “Who Can It Be Now?” has gone from being a No. 1 hit for Men at Work in 1982 to a draft jingle for the 49ers.

The smoke will disperse once the 49ers are on the clock after the Jaguars select Trevor Lawrence with the first pick and Zach Wilson goes No. 2 to the Jets. There are those who believe the 49ers cannot go wrong with Wilson, Lance of Fields at No. 3. Just ask the Jaguars (Blake Bortles in 2014), Titans (Vince Young in 2006) Lions (Joey Harrington in 2002) and Bengals (Akili Smith in 1999) what can go wrong with the third pick.

Kiper has the 49ers taking the safe route by selecting Jones. His ESPN counterpart, Todd McShay, believes the 49ers are willing to gamble on Lance. Tim Plough could make a case for either quarterback. He got a firsthand look at Lance in 2019 when North Dakota State defeated UC Davis 27-16 in Fargo. Plough was the Aggies offensive coordinator at the time. He now has the same job at Boise State.

Lance was not all that impressive against UC Davis, completing just 13 of 23 passes for 156 yards. He did rush for 43 yards and two touchdowns. UC Davis was one of five teams in North Dakota State’s 16-0 season to hold Lance without a touchdown pass. Another team to do so was James Madison in the FCS championship game, but Lance did more than enough on the ground (30 carries for 166 yards and one touchdown) in the Bison’s 28-20 victory.

“His physical stature is very impressive when you see him for the first time,” Plough said of the 6-foot-4, 227-pound Lance. “The ball jumps out of his hand, but he missed some passes against us. If you’re going to draft a guy like that, it’s going to take time. He didn’t have a lot of starts in college.”

Lance started 17 games at North Dakota State, just as many as Jones did at Alabama. The only other statistic they have in common is sacks. Jones was dropped 13 times in 2020. Sacks count as rushing attempts in college, so Jones rushed for 89 yards and lost 75 to finish with 14. Lance was sacked 13 times in 2019, so he gained 1,183 yards and lost 83 to end with 1,100. Jones had one rushing touchdown last season. Lance scored 14 in 2019.

Plough is as impressed with the 6-3, 214-pound Jones’ perseverance as he is with Jones’ passing proficiency. Jones threw for 4,100 and 45 touchdowns, completing 77.4 percent (311 of 402) of his passes with just four interceptions. Plough prefers to look beyond the numbers. He sees Jones as a quarterback who sat behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa before reaching the top of the depth chart. A 13-0 season and a FBS national championship are nice rewards for one season of starting.

“Mac Jones has left an impression on me,” Plough said. “He could have transferred. He wasn’t playing, so he could have gone other ways. He kept improving and competing. He’s accurate and he can move with the space of the pocket. He can really throw from the pocket. He can anticipate and be accurate.”

Jones and Lance each have a national championship under their respective belts. Now the question is which one can lead an NFL team to the Super Bowl. “They’re all good,” Plough said of the five quarterbacks who could go in the first 10 picks. “You can’t go wrong.”

We have heard that before.

Fast four-ward for relay team

Aspin Oliver (from left), Lily Holman, Makayla Oliver and Maya Holman started off Saturday by training for the Monticello Empire League championships Tuesday and Thursday at Vanden. The three seniors and one sophomore (Lily) are ranked second in the state in the 4×100 relay and Aspin is first in the 300-meter hurdles.

First play often goes astray

Hunter Rodrigues has figured out how to conquer his nerves as the starting quarterback for UC Davis. All the junior has to do to calm down is botch the first offensive play. He did that twice in three March victories for the Aggies, so getting his worst play out of the way right away was not catastrophic. 

Confusion on the first play March 6 at Idaho led to Rodrigues mishandling the snap and having to scramble to recover the loose ball. “We got (to the line of scrimmage) a little late and the play clock was going down,” Rodrigues said. “It was down to about 5 seconds and we were all trying to rush. Not a good start.”

Hunter Rodrigues was nearly sacked for a safety and then fumbled on the first play against Cal Poly on March 26. UC Davis went on to win 73-24.

Rodrigues bounced back to complete 23 of 29 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-17 victory. UC Davis knocked off the No. 19 team in the FCS rankings and then joined the Top 25 at No. 23.

The first play against Cal Poly on March 26 was worse. A holding penalty on the opening kickoff left UC Davis starting its first possession at the 9-yard line. Rodrigues dropped back to pass and was immediately under pressure. He retreated into the end zone and then scrambled to his left with Cal Poly’s Lance Vecchio in pursuit. Vecchio caught Rodrigues, who lost the ball on his way to the turf.

Rodrigues lost the ball because he was trying to flip it forward in hopes of the play being ruled an incomplete pass. “No (receiver) was open, so I was rolling out trying to find someone,” Rodrigues said. “I noticed I was in the end zone and I didn’t want to take a safety. I should have thrown it away sooner.

“Yeah, another not a good start.”

The Mustangs recovered the fumble, but the Aggies defense bailed out Rodrigues by limiting Cal Poly to a field goal. The turnover by Rodriguez was long forgotten by halftime, when UC Davis led 49-10 on its way to a 73-24 victory. UC Davis was to play Cal Poly again on April 10, but Cal Poly  has bowed out.

That leaves UC Davis (3-1) with one more game this spring. The Aggies, who are No. 11 in the FCS rankings, will host No. 9 Eastern Washington (3-1) on Saturday with the winner likely receiving an at-large berth to the 16-team FCS playoffs. Eleven conference champions will receive automatic berths, leaving just five at-large bids.

Weber State (3-0), which is ranked No 3, will likely receive the Big Sky’s automatic bid when the FCS playoff field is announced April 18. The Wildcats’ remaining games are against two 1-3 teams in Southern Utah and Idaho State. Weber State beat UC Davis 18-13 on March 13 and will not play Eastern Washington.

Rodrigues welcomes the challenge of facing Eastern Washington with the opportunity to lead the Aggies to their first win against the Eagles in nine meetings. The Whitney High School (Rocklin) graduate arrived at UC Davis from American River College in 2018, when the Aggies lost 59-20 to the Eagles in the regular season and 34-29 in the FCS quarterfinals. 

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 2018, but he was not at his best against Eastern Washington. He threw two interceptions in each loss. To put that in perspective, he was picked off just six times in the other 11 games. When asked about Maier’s performances against the Eagles, Rodrigues looked beyond the errant passes to see what made Maier so successful.

“It was the true grit that you have to have to play this position,” Rodrigues said. “You have to put your heart and should into this position in order to be successful. It meant everything to (Maier). It means everything to me to play at my best when the best is needed.”

Rodrigues will have to be at his best against Eastern Washington – except for the first play. That is the one he can afford to botch because “it takes away any nerves or butterflies you might have.” 

He would know.Edit

Higher stakes for Airey, Aggies

UC Davis has bigger football fish to fry than Cal Poly these days. Beating the Mustangs has become like shooting guppies in a barrel for the Aggies, who have won the past two meetings by an average of 33 points. The Aggies will seek to extend their hold on the Golden Horseshoe trophy to four years in Davis on Saturday.

Portland State led 7-0 at halftime at Weber State in 2016 and could not seal the deal in a 14-10 loss. UC Davis is quite familiar with that feeling. 

Connor Airey (Wayne Tilcock/Aggie Photo)

The inability to put away an opponent was a habit for UC Davis in 2019 when the Aggies went 5-7. UC Davis led in five of its losses. The most painful was squandering a 17-3 lead against Sacramento State in a 27-17 loss. With the victory, the Hornets shared the Big Sky Conference championship with  Weber State. 

And let’s not forget that UC Davis was taken to task in 2018 after sharing the title with Weber State and Eastern Washington. Some considered the Aggies unworthy because they did not play Weber State that season. Weber State drove that home in 2019 by knocking UC Davis out of the FCS Top 25 with a 36-20 victory.

That the 2020 season was postponed because of COVID-19 only gave senior linebacker Connor Airey and his teammates 15 months to stew over the disappointment of 2019. Defeating Big Sky opponents such as Cal Poly, Portland State and Southern Utah is not going to cut it for UC Davis anymore. The stakes are now higher.

“We had that one great season in 2018, but what does that mean if we can’t follow up?” Airey said.  “We weren’t able to close out games (in 2019). It left a mark on all of us. We’ve made it an emphasis to close out games. We want to establish ourselves as contenders again. If we put in the work, it will show on Saturday.”

It showed March 6 at Idaho in the first game of this makeshift spring season. The six games will not count against a player’s eligibility, so Airey and the other seniors can return in the fall. Airey said these six games are still vital for a team needing to right the ship before traveling to its 2021 opener at Tulsa on Sept. 2.

UC Davis erased a 10-0 deficit at Idaho and took the lead by scoring touchdowns on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter. Aimey finished off the Vandals with his first career interception on the first play after freshman Lan Larison’s 9-yard scoring run with 3:12 to play put the Aggies ahead by the final score of 27-17.

That interception along with 10 tackles and a sack led to Airey being named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week. The honor was the first for the Servite High School (Anaheim) graduate who walked on at UC Davis. He redshirted in 2016, contributed on special teams the next two seasons and became a starter in 2019.

There were times in 2016 when Airey questioned whether he was wasting time by going to practice when football was not paying his tuition or room and board. His major (Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior) is hardly the easiest. He wondered if he could continue to invest in football without reaping any dividends.

“There was definitely a point and time when I had to look at myself in the mirror and make sure that this was something I wanted. It was definitely humbling, definitely a hard experience,” said Airey, who is the Aggies’ leading tackler with 17 through two games. “I learned a lot from that experience and that’s why I’m here. It was definitely an experience that helped me be the player I am today.”

Dodgers keep Gonsolin around

Tony Gonsolin is no longer a one night stand for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 2012 Vacaville High School graduate has moved beyond flirting with the Dodgers by pitching in one game and then being sent away the next day. The relationship must be getting serious because his latest stay is at  five weeks … and counting.

The Dodgers swept aside the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League wild-card playoffs and are facing the San Diego Padres in the divisional round. The best-of-five series began Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas with the Dodgers winning 5-1.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Tony-Gonsolin-3-617x1024.jpg
(Courtesy photo/Oklahoma City Dodgers)
Tony Gonsolin is 2-2 in 2020 with a 2.31 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.

For the sake of neutrality, the NL divisional playoffs will be in American League parks. The two AL series are in NL cities The Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins are in Houston as the Astros battle the Oakland A’s at Dodger Stadium. The Tampa Rays and New York Yankees are in San Diego with the Padres in Texas. Nothing makes much sense in this bizarre season of cardboard fans and nasal swabs.

The yo-yo manner in which the Dodgers have treated Gonsolin also makes little sense, although he would rather go back and forth instead of not going at all. The right-hander made his major-league debut on June 26, 2019 in Arizona and returned to Triple-A Oklahoma City on June 27. His second start was July 30. He was sent packing a day later.

Gonsolin returned Aug. 2 and earned his first major-league victory Aug. 5 by allowing two hits in six shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals. He then packed his bags and returned to Oklahoma City on Aug. 6. The Dodgers recalled Gonsolin on Aug. 18 and retained him for the final six weeks of regular season.

This season brought more of the same. Gonsolin joined the Dodgers on July 31 to start in Arizona and left the next day for the team’s alternate training site at USC. He returned Aug. 12 and made two starts before again being sent away Aug. 19. When the Dodgers recalled him for good on Aug. 30, he could only assume he was staying because no one told him otherwise. So much for any pomp and circumstance of making it to the big leagues.

“They really don’t tell you anything,” said Gonsolin, who won two of his five starts in September to even his record at 2-2. The 26-year-old finished the regular season with a 2.31 ERA and struck out 46 in 46 2/3 innings.

Not only did Gonsolin impress the Dodgers in 2019 with his pitching. He also batted .308 with one of his four hits coming against former Vallejo High star CC Sabathia in the Dodgers’ 2-1 victory over the New York Yankees on Aug. 24. Gonsolin singled in the third inning and scored on a home run by Justin Turner. 

That proved to the difference because Gonsolin and three relievers combined to allow just five hits. Gonsolin yielded two hits and one run when Aaron Judge blasted a ball well beyond the center-field fence. 

With the NL adding the designated hitter this season, Gonsolin can leaves his bats in the clubhouse. He does not miss batting in games as much as taking batting practice with the other pitchers. Batting practice often turned into a home run derby with pitchers trying to prove they can go deep.

“It’s always fun watching the balls getting launched,” said Gonsolin, who hit seven homers of 11 homers at Saint Mary’s College as a senior. He has yet to go deep since being a ninth-round draft pick in 2016. 

“Getting in the (batter’s) box is fun,” Gonsolin said, “In this abbreviated season, it’s probably better to have a guy up there that can put together a good at-bat. We’re facing some pretty tough pitchers in the playoffs.”

Whether the Padres will face Gonsolin in the NLDS remains to be determined. Five games in five days leave little chance of Walker Buehler (Game 1 starter) and Clayton Kershaw (Game 2) making two starts in the series. Gonsolin’s availability to start might come down to whether he is needed out of the bullpen.

Gonsolin had a solid start against the Padres on Aug. 12, surrendering three hits in 4 2/3 shutout innings and striking out eight. He needed to finish the the fifth inning to be eligible for a win, which he would have earned after the Dodgers scored two runs in the bottom of the fifth to pull ahead in a 6-0 victory.

The Dodgers loosened Gonsolin’s leash on Sept. 26  after the Los Angeles Angels rallied for four runs in the third inning to erase a 3-0 deficit. Gonsolin walked to the mound in the fourth because no one told him not to. He blanked the Angels in the next three innings as the Dodgers came back to pull out  a 7-6 victory.

Gonsolin knows nothing of the Dodgers’ pitching plans for the NLDS other than “Buehler’s going in Game 1.” All he can do at this point is hope to remain with the Dodgers until the last out of their season. The Dodgers can alter their 28-player roster before the NL Championship Series and the World Series.

They did just that for the NLDS by dropping catcher Keibert Ruiz and adding pitcher Dylan Floro. They also swapped position players with backup first baseman Edwin Rios injured by adding infielder Gavin Lux. After all of his one night stands, Gonsolin has learned not to count his chickens or any other birds.

“It’s out of my control. All that stuff is way over my head,” Gonsolin said. “It could be dictated by matchups. All I know is when I go out there, I am going to do the best I can do.”

Phat times at Oak Ridge High

Eric Cavaliere has never had it so good as Oak Ridge High School’s football coach. He enters his 14th season at the helm of the Trojans after claiming his first Sac-Joaquin Section championship in 2019. One of his prize pupils, Ian Book, is the starting quarterback at Notre Dame. And his current quarterback, Justin Lamson, was voted the All-Metro Player of the Year by the Sacramento Bee as just a junior.

Life is going so well for Cavaliere that the 1987 Vacaville High School graduate can afford to take it easy occasionally. He did that one recent morning, relaxing in the football bleachers at Oak Ridge with flip flops on his feet and a few weeks of growth on his face, to watch a handful of quarterbacks toss passes to receivers.

Justin Lamson (right) is following in the footsteps of Ian Book (left) at Oak Ridge.

In that group was Book, who is working out in his old stomping grounds after the coronavirus led Notre Dame to cancel classes on campus and spring football practice. He was joined by Lamson, who is having a difficult time with social distancing because he wants to hear any wisdom Book is willing to share. Book has no problem with any player, even an eighth-grader, wanting to work and pick his brain.

“I know what it would have meant to me when I was their age,” said Book, who is returning for a fifth year at Notre Dame after throwing for 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2019 as the Fighting Irish finished 11-2 by winning their last six games in a season for the first time since 1992.

Cavaliere and Book went out for lunch after that workout. Their conversation ranged from the Book family dog Duke to Book offering his thoughts on Lamson and Oak Ridge’s prospects for the 2020 season. Book frequently checked his phone for updates on Duke, which was bitten by a rattlesnake on a walk with Book’s father Rich. Book breathed a sigh of relief after learning just one or the snake’s fangs sank into Duke’s nose. 

Comforted by the good news, Book shifted gears to football by asking Cavaliere about one Oak Ridge player after another. Book has followed the Trojans from afar and knows who’s who on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Cavaliere never ceases to be amazed by Book’s vested interest in Trojans football.

Eric Cavaliere

“Here is the quarterback at Notre Dame going into his final season and Ian knows the names of the guys on our team,” Cavaliere said. “He’s got plenty of things to think about, but he takes a lot of pride in our school. He’ll always be an Oak Ridge Trojan. He wants us to do well. He wants our team to kick butt.”

Cavaliere takes great pride in having played football at Vacaville High and hopes his players will be just as proud once their time at Oak Ridge comes to an end. “I want them to leave with that same kind of feeling regardless of our record or anything else. That’s always been of my goals,” he said. “This is a community school. We’re not a renegade school. We don’t have transfers coming here from all over the state, You have to live here to come here.”

Book has fond memories of being a three-year starter at quarterback for Cavaliere at Oak Ridge. The 22-year-old was weighing scholarship offers from Boise State and Washington State in 2015 when Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford left to take the same position at Notre Dame. Book went from nearly committing to Boise State because of Sanford to pledging he would play at Washington State.

Sanford apparently thought enough of Book in recruiting him to Boise State that he invited Book to visit South Bend shortly after he joined the Notre Dame staff. Book was returning from a cruise with his parents at the time, so they went with him from Miami to Notre Dame and a meeting with Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly. Book had little reason to think as a three-star recruit that Kelly would offer him a scholarship.

“I sure hoped for one,” Book recalled. “It was a good visit. I felt at home.”

Without spring practice at Notre Dame, Ian Book returned to Oak Ridge to train.

Finding a home has not been as easy for Sanford, who left Notre Dame after just two seasons to become the head coach at Western Kentucky. He was fired by the Hilltoppers after two years and was Utah State’s offensive coordinator in 2019. Sanford then packed his bags again for the same job at Minnesota.

Brandon Wimbush has also been on the move, transferring from Notre Dame to Central Florida in 2019 after being supplanted by Book despite a 3-0 start in the 2018 season. The Fighting Irish went 11-0 in the regular season and earned a berth in the College Football Playoff. Book was no match for Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence in the Cotton Bowl. Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers rolled to a 30-3 rout. Book passed for 160 yards and was sacked six times.

Notre Dame is 19-4 with Book as the starter, and he deserves to be credited with a 20th victory after bailing out Wimbush in the 2018 Citrus Bowl by lifting Notre Dame to a 21-17 win over LSU. Book was 14-of-19 for 164 yards and two touchdowns as Notre Dame won its first New Year’s Day bowl since 1994.

Book has come a long way since that difficult day in 2015 when he called Graham Harrell, who had recruited Book for Washington State, and left a message. Harrell replied with a text as Book was in a movie theater with a few friends. Book left the theater to call Harrell and renege on his verbal commitment. 

To this day, Book does not remember the title of the movie or if he returned to the theater and rejoined his friends after making the call. “I was so rattled,” Book said.

Sanford and Book have gone their separate ways since Sanford asked Book to visit Notre Dame, but Book will never forget how he got to where he is today and the people such as Cavaliere and Sanford who paved the path for him.

“(Sanford) give me my shot. The relationship between us is still there. I will always appreciate him for the opportunity I got,” Book said. “I’ll talk a walk and think about how fortunate I’ve been. I do it a lot. I’ll go by the stadium at night after studying and think about how lucky I am.” 

Hornets face test in home nest

Hunter Dorraugh (second from right) bides his time as a freshman at Sacramento State, which finished a three-game series against UC Santa Barbara on Sunday.
Fans tailgate on the top level of the parking garage and watch the game for free.

Baseball beckons in January

Sacramento City College ran its record to 5-0 by sweeping a doubleheader against Chabot on Friday. The Panthers won 11-2 in the first game and 6-5 in the second.

Second baseman Makoa Copp twists in an attempt to tag Chabot’s Manny Garcia.

A bad hop on a low throw to first base leaves Nick Cirelli with a gash on his cheek.

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.