Hornets can slow Aggies’ roll

Troy Taylor certainly had a hand in Sacramento State flipping the script against UC Davis in the Causeway Classic. The Hornets are 3-0 against the Aggies since 2019, when Taylor returned home to resurrect a program that had been 4-15 in the rivalry since 2000.

Credit should also go to Andy Thompson, who was hired by Taylor as the defensive coordinator and continues to direct the defense in his first season as head coach. He knows what it takes to stop the Aggies and will likely stick with that strategy on Saturday.

Ulonzo Gilliam averaged 42 rushing yards in his last three games against Sacramento State.

Forcing UC Davis to abandon its running game will again be the key for Sacramento State. The Aggies must win to stand any chance of making the FCS playoffs and a one-dimensional offense is not going to bolster their chances of doing so.

UC Davis rushed for more than 80 yards just once in its past three meetings with Sacramento State. That one time was last Nov. 19, when the Aggies had 113 yards on the ground in a 27-21 loss. They averaged 203 yards in their other 10 games.

Sacramento State limited UC Davis to 73 rushing yards in 2021 and 63 in 2019. The Hornets opted not to play in the spring of 2021 after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season. UC Davis managed just one rushing touchdown in losing the past three meetings.

Ulonzo Gilliam left UC Davis after last season as the program’s all-time leader in rushing yards (4,617), touchdowns (51) and 100-yard games (22). He reached the century mark just once against Sacramento State, gaining 138 in the Aggies’ 56-13 victory in 2018.

That was the year when UC Davis shared the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time. That was also a year before Taylor and Thompson were hired at Sacramento State to breathe new life into a morbid program.

Gilliam’s 138 yards in 2018 were 10 more than his total in his last three shots at Sacramento State. He managed just 61 yards in a 27-17 loss four years ago, 17 in a 27-7 loss in 2021 and 50 in a 27-21 loss in 2022. At least he reached the end zone in last year’s game.

Lan Larison

Lan Larison has been a frequent visitor to the end zone for UC Davis in 2023. And the junior could be just what the Aggies need to turn the Causeway Classic tide in their favor after being named Monday as the Big Sky Co-Offensive Player of the Week.

Larison rushed for 264 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-14 win at Idaho State. The Idaho native dashed 23 yards for the go-ahead score with 2:05 to play in a do-or-die game. Larison rushed for 255 yards against Eastern Washington on Sept. 23, but he sustained a knee injury in the second half and missed three games.

UC Davis faces another must-win game on Saturday against Sacramento State, which climbed to No. 10 in the FCS rankings this week. The Aggies and Hornets are both 4-3 in the Big Sky, but Sacramento State has the magic playoff number with seven victories.

Sacramento State will be joined by Montana (9-1), Montana State (8-2) and Idaho (7-3) in the 24-team playoffs. UC Davis could qualify with six wins, but a seventh would be nice.

The latest playoff projections by the College Sports Journal have UC Davis at No. 17 against No. 16 Central Arkansas and Sacramento State at No. 14 against No. 19 Holy Cross. That would give the Hornets a home playoff game for the third time in the past three full seasons.

Standing at helm of Hornets

Andy Thompson was hired by Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor in 2019 and succeeds him this season after Taylor left for Stanford.

Troy Taylor had a habit of squatting on the sideline in three years as Sacramento State’s head football coach. Andy Thompson will not stand still, much less squat, in his first year at the Hornets helm.

His title has changed, but Thompson has no intentions of changing his style. In three seasons  as defensive coordinator, Thompson covered as much ground on the sideline as any player on the field. The Energizer Bunny has nothing on Thompson except for the drum, fluffy tail and long ears. 

Troy Taylor

Count on Thompson beating a path in the sideline turf today when Sacramento State plays Nicholls State at 4 p.m. The Hornets’ are visiting Louisiana for the first time since a 56-0 loss to Louisiana Tech in 1977.

“I’ve got to be me. I’m who I am,” Thompson said Tuesday evening after practice. “It wouldn’t be a good deal if I tried to be somebody else. This is not going to be just about me. It’s going to be about the team.”

Thompson will continue to direct the defense. In the NFL, defensive-minded head coaches are more unlikely to gamble on offense for fear of putting the defense in jeopardy. Thompson has every intention of breaking that mold.

Taylor is an offensive-minded head coach and rarely played it safe with the Hornets. Thompson will follow suit even with a background in defense because “we want to be aggressive. We want to be attacking.

“That’s been successful here,” added Thompson, who was the defensive coordinator at Northern Arizona for 10 years before coming to Sacramento in 2019. “I think the kids feel you’re confident in them if you can go for it. At the same time, you’ve got to be smart. That’s why you get paid to be the head coach.”

Mark Orr, Sacramento State’s athletic director, interviewed three of Taylor’s assistants – Thompson, Bobby Fresques and Kris Richardson – after Taylor  left for Stanford. The three made a pact to stick together regardless of who got the job. Fresques joked in the spring that he and Richardson let Thompson “have all the headaches.”

“It’s good to know that now,” Thompson quipped after learning of the conspiracy Tuesday. “There’s stuff you don’t know about being a head coach until you are. I’m just trying not to make the same mistake two days in a row.”

One mistake Thompson wants to avoid is distancing himself from the players now that he is in charge. He would much rather earn the respect of his players than expect it just because he is head honcho.

“I want to build great relationships, but you have to make sure you hold people accountable,”  Thompson said. “For me to do that, I have to get to know people and not just live in a bubble and make decisions and think people are just going to do it because the head coach said to do it.”

Hornets reload without Taylor

Two seasons with two quarterbacks capable of running Sacramento State’s offense made Bobby Fresques’ job as the quarterbacks coach almost too easy. Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara made the most of being interchangeable as the Hornets won 21 of 25 games and two Big Sky Conference championships the past two seasons.

 “It worked because we were successful,” Fresques explained. “If we’re not successful, then one of them is going to be disgruntled. By both of them being really good, it’s like the old saying ‘Iron sharpens iron.’ They made each other better. Neither one of them could afford to be complacent. And we got the best out of both of them.” 

Offensive coordinator Bobby Fresques

That was then, however. Fresques now faces the challenge of finding a new starting quarterback or possibly two who can share playing time. And now that Fresques will be calling plays, the game plan will depend on who is behind center. Fresques was promoted to  offensive coordinator after head coach Troy Taylor bolted  to Stanford.

Fresques, associate head coach Kris Richardson and defensive coordinator Andy Thompson all interviewed to succeed Taylor. Fresques credits Mark Orr, Sacramento State’s Director of Athletics, for not going outside to find a new head coach who would have likely dismissed all of Taylor’s assistants in favor of assembling his own staff.

There was also the possibility of Taylor taking some of his assistants with him to Stanford. Fresques said he, Thompson and Richardson made a pact to remain with the Hornets regardless of who would be named as  head coach. Fresques laughed when asked if he and Richardson conspired to let Thompson take the helm – and the stress.

“Exactly,” Fresques said. “The head coach responsibility is big and Andy is finding that out. But there is no better guy for the job. If they didn’t go in house, we could have been a 12-1 football team (in 2022) with a whole new staff. We’ve built a great foundation. I’d like to think we’re not going to change anything or skip a beat.”

The beat will go on because Fresques inherits an offense with six returning starters. Dunniway and O’Hara graduated along with wide receiver Pierre Williams and guard Brandon Weldon. Sophomore running back Cameron Skattebo, the 2022 Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year, used the transfer portal to go to Arizona State.

Kaiden Bennett

Williams, Weldon and O’Hara were all first-team selections in All-Big Sky voting last year. O’Hara was named the conference’s best all-purpose player after rushing for 19 touchdowns and passing for 11. The Hornets have experienced depth at running back, wide receiver and guard. Quarterback is the question mark.

Kaiden Bennett is the only quarterback on the roster to take a snap with the Hornets. The junior appeared in six games last season, completing four of seven passes for 26 yards and rushing for 72 yards on 12 carries. Bennett’s competition appears to be Carson Camp, a junior transfer from South Dakota. Camp was benched after starting the first seven games for the Coyotes in 2022 to extend his streak of consecutive starts to 23.

Fresques is in no hurry to name a starter. Spring practices were an opportunity to take a good long look at each quarterback candidate. The competition will resume for real in August.

“Right now it’s about putting in the offense, getting (the quarterbacks) reps and see where we’re at going into the summer,”  said Fresques, who played quarterback for the Hornets from 1990 to 1992. “You always want someone to emerge, but we’re not looking to make that decision until the fall. I told (the quarterbacks) three things – don’t compare yourself to anybody else, be a ferocious learner and never cease trying to be better.”

May the better quarterback, or two,  win and answer the No. 1 question for the Hornets as the 2023 season approaches. 

Ex-Viking now inflicting pain

Armon Bailey (30) relied on his teammates for support as he battled injuries.

Most of Armon Bailey’s teammates bolted to the locker room once practice ended Tuesday at Sacramento State. Bailey remained on the field for extra work as if the senior was a freshman or sophomore trying to impress the coaches in hopes of earning playing time. Bailey starts at inside linebacker for the Hornets, so his playing time is a given.

Northern Colorado will see plenty of Bailey on Saturday when the Bears pay a visit to Sacramento to battle the Hornets at 6 p.m. The Bears may be in for a long night because they are 2-3 and have allowed an average of 44 points in the three losses. The Hornets are 4-0 and ranked fifth in the latest FCS poll. They are averaging 45 points a game.

Bailey does not take any game for granted. The Vanden High graduate has come too far and endured too much to think he has got it made. Injuries forced Bailey to miss four games in 2019 and nine last season. The Hornets opted not to play in the spring of 2021 when COVID-19 led to the 2020 season being rescheduled and reduced to five spring games.

Spending a few minutes after practice to sharpen his skills is nothing compared with all the Saturdays he spent in street clothes on the sideline. Bailey is majoring in criminal justice, but he has already earned a degree in perseverance. It would have been so easy to toss in his doo rag and limp away with little to show for his college career.

Defensive coordinator Andy Thompson never lost faith in senior Armon Bailey.

Defensive coordinator Andy Thompson never lost faith in Bailey because Bailey never gave Thompson a reason to do so. Bailey attended all team meetings and studied film with his teammates even when he was a bystander at practice and games.

“You have to keep yourself engaged with the team,” said Thompson, who coaches the linebackers. “When you’re connected with the team, when you know your coaches and teammates care about you, you can get through the tough times. (Bailey’s) injuries were setbacks. They were bumps in the road and he had to overcome them.”

The support of his teammates was all Bailey needed to push through his injuries in hopes of rejoining them on the field one day. Injured players are easy to dismiss when they have nothing to contribute, but Bailey’s teammates never turned their backs on him.

“I had dark days, but my teammates were always there to pull me out of it,” Bailey said. “I tried to stay with my teammates as much as possible. I tried to stay inside the game.”

His days are much brighter this season. Bailey leads the Hornets in tackles with 25 after having a total of 16 in victories over Colorado State and Cal Poly the past two weeks. In each of those weeks, he was named the Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Sky Conference. Bailey is just the third defensive player in school history to earn the award twice in a season. Anybody want to bet he will be the first to do it three times?

The awards are a testament to Bailey’s commitment to the Hornets. He strived to come back as much for his teammates and coaches as he did for himself. “That speaks to his character,” Thompson explained. “It’s easy to coach kids who work real hard and are unbelievable people off the field. Armon is an unbelievable kid.”

Bailey believed in himself even in the darkest times. So did Thompson. “He never gave up on me,” Bailey said. “I never had a doubt that I was going to make it back.”