Plenty on line in Causeway

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Miles Hastings will start at quarterback for UC Davis in the Causeway Classic.

Much more than bragging rights will be at stake Saturday when UC Davis hosts Sacramento State in the 67th edition of the Causeway Classic. This will be the third consecutive meeting of the rivals with a piece of the Big Sky Conference championship on the line. The Aggies shared the title in 2018, the Hornets did the same two years ago and Sacramento State can claim the crown outright Saturday with a victory and a Montana State loss to Montana.

Montana State kicks off two hours before the Causeway Classic beings at 1 p.m., so the Hornets should know by halftime if they have a chance to have the title all to themselves. The Causeway Classic is hardly a road game for the visiting team, but Sacramento State has not lost a Big Sky game away from Hornet Stadium since Troy Taylor signed a seven-year contract to become the Hornets coach in 2019. The Hornets are 7-0 on the Big Sky road with one of their victories just so happening to come at Montana State in 2019

Sacramento State is riding a seven-game winning streak, its longest in 55 years, with all of those victories coming against Big Sky opponents. The Hornets dropped two of their three nonconference games, including a 42-30 loss at Cal on Sept. 18. Sacramento State also lost to Northern Iowa, which at the time was ranked 15th in the FCS Top 25. The Panthers fell out of the rankings this week but could be one of 13 teams to receive at-large berths to the FCS playoffs. The 24-team bracket will be announced at 9:30 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.

UC Davis (5-2 Big Sky, 8-2 overall) fell four spots to No. 10 in the rankings after losing 38-20 to Eastern Washington last Saturday. A Top 10 spot should be enough to get the Aggies an at-large berth into the playoffs regardles of Saturday’s outcome. Sacramento State (7-0, 8-2) is No. 11 and will be the Big Sky’s automatic qualifier with a victory and a Montana State loss. If both the Hornets and Bobcats lose, Sacramento State will receive the automatic bid by virtue of its 28-21 victory Oct. 16 at Montana, which at the time was ranked No. 5. The Grizzlies are currently No. 7, two spots below Eastern Washington.

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Eric Barriere

The Big Sky should have five teams in the playoffs and there is a good chance two of them will meet at some point. That happened in 2019 with Weber State defeating Montana in the quarterfinals. Sacramento State was seeded fourth two years ago, drew a first-round bye and then lost to Austin Peay. UC Davis and Eastern Washington met in the second round in 2018, four weeks after the Aggies lost 59-20 to the Eagles on Nov. 10 in Cheney. UC Davis returned to Cheney for the playoff rematch and lost 34-29 when Eastern Washington’s Sam McPherson scored on a 35-yard run with 26 seconds to play.

Eastern Washington has continued to have its way with UC Davis. Last Saturday’s victory was the Eagles’ 10th in as many meetings with the Aggies. Quarterback Eric Barriere has personally seen to maintaining the Eagles’ superiority. In four games against UC Davis, Barriere has thrown for 1,324 yards and 10 touchdowns. The redshirt senior was at it again last Saturday in Davis by throwing for 411 yards and three touchdowns without being sacked. That was a standard performance for Barriere, who passed for 600 yards and seven touchdowns in the Eagles’ 71-21 victory over Idaho on Oct. 16.

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins tipped his figurative cap to Barriere last Saturday. “He’s a generational talent. He could play at any level and play well,” Hawkins said. “As I told our team and him, I have had the fortune or misfortune of playing against a number of Heisman Trophy winners and (Heisman) finalists. (Barriere is) as dominant a player as anyone I’ve played against. You’re not going to shut him down. You just try to limit what he can do.”

Wrestling with Sacramento State’s tag team of quarterbacks should prove much easier for UC Davis than trying to take down Barriere. Taylor plays to the respective strengths of Jake Dunniway (2,051 yards passing and 11 touchdowns) and Asher O’Hara (a team-high 593 yards rushing and eight touchdowns).

Hawkins has done the same at UC Davis with redshirt freshmen Miles Hastings (920 yards passing and six touchdowns) and Trent Tompkins (420 yards rushing and six touchdowns) taking turns. Hunter Rodrigues started the first four games this season after starting all five games last spring. The junior has not been the same since sustaining a concussion at Weber State on Sept. 25. He missed the Idaho game and was benched after tossing two interceptions in the first half of a 27-17 loss at Idaho State on Oct. 9.

Two more interceptions against Northern Colorado on Oct. 16 convinced Hawkins to go with Hastings, who has started the past three games. Hawkins has not lost faith in Rodrigues even thought Rodrigues has lost the starting job. “I think for a variety of reasons he was pressing,” Hawkins said. “I felt bad because it had to be hard for him. But as my dad told me a long time ago, life is not fair and either is football. Humility before honor – I get it.”

One-two punch at quarterback

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Jake Dunniway has no problem sharing the quarterback job for the Hornets.

Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor had no idea how quarterback Jake Dunniway would react when Asher O’Hara joined the Hornets. Dunniway had the inside track to be the starter after backing up Kevin Thomson in 2019. When an injury forced Thomson to miss one game two years ago, Dunniway passed for 384 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-34 victory at Northern Arizona.

Dunniway rallied the Hornets by tossing two touchdown passes in the final two minutes and kept Sacramento State in contention for the Big Sky Conference championship. The Hornets earned a share of the title in Taylor’s first season at the helm by defeating UC Davis 27-17 in the 66th Causeway Classic.

The scenario will be the same for Taylor’s team on Saturday at UC Davis. Sacramento State is tied with Montana State atop the Big Sky at 7-0, so a victory would guarantee the Hornets at least a co-championship. It will be the third consecutive Causeway clash in which a piece of the Big Sky title will be at stake.

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Asher O’Hara

UC Davis earned a third of the title by routing Sacramento State 56-13 in the 2018 Causeway Classic when the game was moved from Davis to the University of Nevada because of poor air quality caused by the Camp Fire. The Aggies finished 7-1 in the Big Sky to share the championship with Weber State and Eastern Washington.

Taylor believes the Hornets have a shot to win their second title in as many seasons (they chose not to play after the 2020 season was moved to last spring) because Dunniway and O’Hara have put aside their egos for the greater good.

“I remember when I called (Dunniway) and told him there’s a guy coming in,” Taylor said. “He said, ‘Coach, I get it. We’re trying to get better as a team.’ He’s been so solid the entire time. In this age when for a lot of people and players it’s all about you, (Dunniway and O’Hara) are not like that at all. And honestly if those two guys weren’t like that, I don’t know if we would be having the success we’re having. You can divide a team with two quarterbacks.”

O’Hara transferred to Sacramento State after the Ilinois native started for two years at Middle Tennessee State. Dunniway joined the Hornets in 2019 after playing at San Diego Mesa College in 2018. He walked on at UC Davis in 2017 after graduating from St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, but the Aggies were not in need of a quarterback with sophomore Jake Maier as the starter.

Dunniway never assumed he would start after Thomson packed his bags and moved to Washington in 2020 as a graduate transfer. An injury prevented Thomson, the 2019 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, from playing for the Huskies. He is now on the BC Lions practice squad in the Canadian Football League.

“Ever since (Thomson) left, I’ve always been in the mindset that they weren’t going to just hand me the job,” Dunniway explained. “I wanted to earn it. I just embraced the competition. I wasn’t going to run away from the challenge.”

Running is O’Hara’s forte. He has rushed for a team-high 593 yards and eight touchdowns. The 6-foot, 195-pound junior is fearless and often attempts to leap over defenders because he figures he has no chance of running them over. O’Hara had his first 100-yard game last Saturday, gaining 102 yards on just 13 carries and scoring on a 9-yard run in a 49-20 victory over Portland State.

Dunniway did his part by throwing for 281 yards and a touchdown. “After seeing what (O’Hara) could do in camp and I thought I was playing well,” Dunniway said, “I kind of agreed with the coaches that would be a good idea to play both of us.”



Stage not too big for Hornets

Facing 63,000 fans at Cal on Saturday will not rattle Sacramento State quarterback Asher O’Hara. And that is assuming every ticket is sold. With the Golden Bears winless after their first two games in 2021 and playing an FCS team, there could be thousands of seats without a blue and gold bottom in them.

Cal drew 35,117 to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 4 for its first game with fans in attendance since 2019. The modest show of support did not do much good for the Golden Bears, who squandered an early 14-0 lead in a 22-17 loss to Nevada.

Saturday’s game carries the risk of embarrassment for Cal with one Pac-12 team (Washington) having already lost to an FCS team (Montana) this season. The loss was the first by a Pac-12 team in such a game since Washington State was upset by Eastern Washington in 2016. Washington State also lost to Portland State in 2015.

Asher O’Hara

O’Hara would love to add Cal to the list of FBS victims. He will have to play better than he did last Saturday to stand any chance of orchestrating an upset. O’Hara disappointed a crowd of 8,067 in his first game at Hornet Stadium by tossing three interceptions and losing two fumbles in a 34-16 loss to Northern Iowa.

Jake Dunniway relieved O’Hara for Sacramento State’s first two series in the third quarter and lost a fumble to end the second. Turnovers ended six of the Hornets’ 13 possessions. Three ended with Kyle Sentowski field goals. Sacramento State settled for a 25-yard field goal by the junior in the second quarter after driving 64 yards in 13 plays for a first-and-goal at Northern Iowa’s 8-yard line.

The drive drained 7:31 off the clock and was the second longest in the terms of time for the Hornets in two games. Sacramento State had a 7:36 drive against Dixie State on Sept. 4 that resulted in O’Hara throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marshel Martin. To get three points from a drive of more than seven minutes against a team like Northern Iowa is not going to cut it.

Squandering such opportunities will not bolster O’Hara’s case to remain the starter. Dunniway will continue to merit consideration if for no other reason than his 2019 performance against Northern Arizona. Starting in place of the injured Kevin Thomson, Dunniway passed for 354 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-34 victory.

The Hornets trailed 34-24 after a 44-yard punt return by Daron Bland to the Northern Arizona 37-yard line with 2:03 to play. Dunniway threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Gable, the Hornets recovered the onside kick and Pierre Williams caught a 18-yard scoring strike from Dunniway with 23 seconds left.

O’Hara arrived in June after transferring from Middle Tennessee State. He decided to leave and enter the transfer portal after Blue Raiders offensive coordinator Tony Franklin retired. “I felt really comfortable with (Franklin) and he believed in me,” O’Hara said. “When he left, I thought it was a good time for me to leave.”

Franklin’s parting gift was asking O’Hara to contact Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor. Taylor was in the market for a quarterback and Franklin believed O’Hara’s two seasons as the starter for Middle Tennessee State would make him a worthy candidate. In 21 games, O’Hara threw for 4,576 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also put his feet to good use by running for 1,659 yards and 16 scores.

Cal fans should take note that O’Hara’s first start for the Blue Raiders was in front of 110,881 fans at Michigan in 2019. He threw a scare into the Wolverines by scoring on an 18-yard run in the first quarter to give Middle Tennessee State for a 7-0 lead. He threw for 217 yards, rushed for a team-high 58 and accounted for three touchdowns in a 40-21 loss.

That alone would have been enough to pique Taylor’s interest.

“(Franklin) told me that (Taylor) just wants me to hear him out and give him a chance,” O’Hara said. “I was a little skeptical. You can never really rely on just talking to somebody. I hadn’t heard of Sacramento State at the time. We had a Zoom call and talked for about 45 minutes. That led to another Zoom call and another.”

To test Taylor’s sincerity, O’Hara asked the coach to take a look at film of his little brother. Jace had 15 tackles in two games at DuPage, a junior college in Glen Ellyn, Ill., before a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his 2019 season. Glen Ellyn is 16 miles from the brothers’ hometown of Rolling Meadows.

“We were hoping for a walk-on offer for Jace, but they offered us both (scholarships). That made it an easy decision,” said O’Hara, who shares a four-bedroom house with his brother. The extra bedrooms have come in handy this week with the brothers’ parents and grandmother paying a visit. The three will be among those wearing green in a sea of blue and gold Saturday.

Taylor was partial to blue and gold when he was the starting quarterback at Cal from 1986 to ’89. If Taylor is a bit emotional about returning to Memorial Stadium, he has concealed it from his players. “He hasn’t made it anything different this week,” O’Hara said. “He doesn’t want to make this a bigger game than normal.”

It is not normal for an FCS team to beat a Pac-12 squad. Taylor and O’Hara will see what they can do about that on Saturday.

Sac State turns tight end loose

Troy Taylor has some nerve to think he can get away with saying Marshel Martin might be the best tight end in college football. The Sacramento State coach has apparently spent far too days out in the sun without a cap on his bald head. The Sporting News ranked the top 25 college tight ends in the country and Martin did not make the cut, so Taylor might want to pipe down.

Martin can prove Taylor has not lost all of his marbles this season by matching or surpassing his productivity as a freshman in 2019. Martin bolted out of the starting gate last Saturday in St. George, Utah with seven receptions for 56 yards and two touchdowns in the Hornets’ 19-7 victory at Dixie State.

Marshel Martin

It took the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Martin all of one game in 2021 to set a career high for receptions. He accounted for more than one third of the 19 passes completed by quarterbacks Asher O’Hara (13-of-21) and Jake Dunniway (6-of-9). O’Hara started in his debut with the Hornets after transferring from Middle Tennessee State to join his brother Jace. Dunniway appeared in eight games with the Hornets in 2019 and made one start.

Sacramento State managed just 17 points despite advantages in total offense (400 yards to 209), total plays (76 to 55) and time of possession (37:56 to 22:04). The victory was the Hornets’ first in Taylor’s 14 games at the helm in which they failed to score 20 points. They averaged 43.5 points in their nine victories in 2019. Sacramento State opted not to participate in the Big Sky Conference’s makeshift 2021 spring season.

Martin did not know how he would fit at Sacramento State when he arrived in 2018 from St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo. He was a running back with the Bruins and capped his junior season with a 72-yard touchdown run in the 2016 state Division 6-A championship game as St. Patrick-St. Vincent defeated Strathmore 29-28. He also contributed to the Bruins claiming the 2017 state Division IV title in basketball.

His senior year was more of the same. Martin ran wild in the North Coast Section playoffs, gaining a combined 446 yards with eight touchdowns in wins over Stellar Prep and Clear Lake. St. Patrick-St. Vincent reached the Northern California championship game, but that was the end of the road as Strathmore settled a score by the score of 49-35.

Sacramento State was squared away at running back in 2018 with Elijah Dotson, who ran for 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore. The Hornets finished 0-7 in the Big Sky and 2-8 overall, leading to the firing of head coach Jody Sears. Changes began with the hiring of Taylor and one of those was Martin finding a new address at tight end.

Martin accepted the switch for no other reason than a freshman knows better than to question a coach, especially one with Taylor’s credentials. Taylor compiled a 58-3 as co-head coach at Folsom High from 2012 to ’15. The former Cal quarterback then spent one year as offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington and two seasons in the same job at Utah. He took a $285,000 pay cut by leaving Utah and signing a seven-year contract at Sacramento State.

As far as Martin is concerned, Taylor is worth every dollar of his $240,000 annual salary. Martin put his faith in Taylor because “he knows what he’s doing. It was their decision to move me (to tight end). I feel like I’m an athlete and I can play anywhere. It’s not always going to be about you. This is a team sport. You have to work for your teammates.”

Taylor’s impact with the Hornets was immediate. Sacramento State finished 9-4 in 2019 and claimed a share of the Big Sky championship. Martin had a hand (or two) in the Hornets’ success with 39 receptions for 550 yards and seven touchdowns. He set a school record for most touchdown catches in a season by a tight end.

Once Taylor took the reins at Sacramento State, he did not need much time to figure out Martin was special. “He just loves playing football,” said Taylor, who won the Eddie Robinson Award in 2019 as the FCS Coach of the Year. “He could be a great defensive player honestly. He could have been a great running back. He can do a lot of different things. He’s one of the fastest players on the team. He’s definitely in the top three, which is unusual for a tight end.”

The gushing continued when Taylor went on to say, “When he catches the ball, we joke around as a (coaching) staff that he legitimately thinks he’s going to score every time he gets the ball. That’s how he runs. He’s strong and athletic. He doesn’t run like he’s going to go down. That’s why he breaks so many tackles. I just happen to think he might be the best tight end in the country. He’s that good.”