Taylor-made job for coach

Sacramento State had no business being in Friday night’s FCS quarterfinal game against Incarnate Word until the final play. Four turnovers, one being a fumble the Cardinals returned for a touchdown, should have spoiled the Hornets’ 12-0 season long before a Hail Mary pass by Jake Dunniway fell incomplete in the end zone as time expired.

The odds of the Hornets overcoming four turnovers to win were about as slim as any chance of Sacramento State persuading Troy Taylor into turning down an offer to become the coach at Stanford. The gossip Friday at Hornet Stadium was that Stanford was simply waiting for the end of Sacramento State’s season to seal the deal with Taylor.

Not only is Taylor more than qualified for the job, but Stanford landed the former Cal quarterback just a year after the Golden Bears gave Justin Wilcox a six-year contract extension. Most folks figured Taylor would only leave Sacramento State for Cal, but the Golden Bears are stuck with Wilcox for the next five years unless they buy him out.

Like most coaches on the hot seat, Wilcox let two of his assistants take the fall when this season took a turn for the worse. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and offensive line coach Angus McClure were fired after a 38-10 loss at Oregon State on Nov. 12 left Cal at 3-7 with a six-game losing streak. The Golden Bears salvaged a modicum of pride by beating Stanford 27-20 and Cal fans need to savor that.

Taylor will see to that not happening again any time soon in the Big Game. His three-year stay at Sacramento State ended with a 66-63 loss to Incarnate Word, but Taylor kept the Hornets in the game by realizing his offense would have to keep pace with the high-powered Cardinals when his defense was incapable of stopping them.

Sacramento State lost despite a record-setting offensive show orchestrated by Taylor. The Hornets rewrote their record book with 738 yards of total offense, 109 offensive plays and 49 first downs. The four turnovers were costly as Incarnate Word turned three of them into points, including Kelechi Anyakebechi’s 55-yard return of an O’Hara fumble that stretched the Cardinals’ lead to 59-48 with 8:30 to go in the game.

The touchdown was the fourth in less than four minutes. Sacramento State trailed 45-41 with 12:30 left after running back Cameron Skattebo caught a lateral from Dunniway and lofted a 19-yard scoring pass to tight end Marshel Martin. After the Hornets gambled with an onside kick and recovered it, Martin found the end zone again by catching a 14-yard pass from Dunniway. Sacramento State led 48-45 – for all of 49 seconds.

Marcus Cooper put Incarnate Word back on top with a 67-yard touchdown dash. After Anyalebechi’s fumble return, Sacramento State answered with Dunniway’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Williams and Martin’s 4-yard scoring run with 1:43 left. The Cardinals needed just 76 seconds to go 75 yards for the final score – a 21-yard pass from Lindsey Scott Jr. to Taylor Grimes. Scott has almost as many rushing yards (176) as he did passing (219).

Scott threw four touchdown passes, boosting his season total to 59, and ran for two scores. Incarnate Word will travel to North Dakota State for a semifinal showdown at 4 p.

Travels, trials and triumphs

Standing between Sacramento State and the FCS semifinals is Lindsey Scott Jr. The Incarnate Word quarterback has thrown for 4,185 yards and 55 touchdowns this season. Sacramento State’s tag team of Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara has combined for 2,904 yards and 27 touchdowns. Let’s just say Scott will have an advantage when the two teams clash in a quarterfinal game at Hornet Stadium.

Incarnate Word is the No. 7 seed and pulled out a 41-38 victory against Furman last week. Kole Wilson turned a pass from Scott into a 32-yard touchdown with 1:54 left to lift the Cardinals (11-1). Sacramento State (12-0) is the No. 2 seed and needed O’Hara’s 51-yard scoring pass to Pierre Williams with 6:28 left to beat Richmond 38-31. Dunniway threw for a season-high 317 yards and three scores.

Scott has also traveled much more than Dunniway or O’Hara. Dunniway is a Tracy High graduate who redshirted at UC Davis in 2017 and then played one season at San Diego Mesa Community College before coming to Sacramento. O’Hara played one season at College of DuPage, which is near his hometown of Rolling Meadows, Ill., and then transferred to Middle Tennessee State before coming to California.

Lindsey Scott Jr. has thrown 55 touchdown passes this season.

They have nothing on Scott, the Louisiana native who redshirted at LSU in 2016. He played one season at East Mississippi Community College and then transferred to Missouri, where he did not play. His next stop was Nicholls State, but he could not play in 2019 because of the NCAA transfer rules. Scott started for the Colonels in the spring of 2021 (which did not count against his eligibility) and last fall before coming to Incarnate Word as a graduate transfer.

Scott has also rushed for 466 yards and seven touchdowns, so he has accounted for 76 percent (62 of 81) of Incarnate Word’s touchdowns this season. Sacramento State can counter with O’Hara, who has run for 850 yards and 19 touchdowns. He was the Hornets’ leading rusher against Richmond with 53 yards on 15 carries. Sacramento State was held to a season-high 72 yards rushing last Saturday.

Sacramento State had to shuffle its offensive line because left tackle Troy Stiefel was sidelined with an injury. Left guard Jackson Slater moved to left tackle, right guard Brandon Weldon switched to left guard and Kenndel Riley started at right guard. Stiefel did not practice this week, so it is unlikely he will be available.

Cameron Skattebo had his worst game of the season with 21 yards on nine carries. The sophomore was named the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in rushing yards with 1,251. The Hornets are averaging 235.8 yards per game on the ground and had a season-high 472 yards of total offense against Richmond. Incarnate Word averages 585 yards of total offense.

Incarnate Word had 613 yards against Furman with Scott accounting for 518 (394 passing and a season-high 124 rushing). He tossed five touchdown passes, his seventh game with five or more this season.

Redshirt freshman finds role

Elijah Tau-Tolliver ignited the Hornets by scoring on a 95-yard kickoff return.

Returning a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown did not buy Elijah Tau-Tolliver a break. He had a few seconds on the sideline to celebrate with his Sacramento State teammates and get a squirt of water before returning to the field for the ensuing kickoff. He was still catching his breath when Kyle Sentkowski put his foot to the ball.

Such is the life of a redshirt freshman who earns his keep by playing on special teams. The Hornets do not need Tau-Tolliver to play at running back because they have sophomore Cameron Skattebo, who is the Offensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky Conference after leading the conference in rushing with 1,251 yards in the regular season.

Skattebo is fourth in the Big Sky with 178 rushing attempts. Senior quarterback Asher O’Hara is third with 189, which he has turned into 894 yards. O’Hara ranks second in the FCS with 19 rushing touchdowns. Skattebo has five. Junior Marcus Fulcher has run for 366 yards and two more touchdown runs than Skattebo on 113 fewer carries.

Those three backs have combined for 432 of the Hornets’ 532 rushing attempts. Tau-Tolliver has 23 carries for 175 yards, but most of his action has come during garbage time in lopsided victories against Utah Tech and Eastern Washington. Returning kickoffs and averaging 27.6 yards per return have made him valuable for the Hornets.

Jake Dunniway

That was never more apparent than in last Saturday’s 38-31 win over Richmond in the second round of the FCS playoffs. The Hornets trailed 21-17 at halftime after scoring with 19 seconds to go in the second quarter. Tau-Tolliver said the talk in the locker room centered around receiving the second-half kickoff and getting off to a fast start.

Sacramento State came out of the break with momentum after cutting into a 21-7 deficit with a field goal and touchdown in the second quarter. The touchdown capped a nine-play, 66-yard drive that took just 95 seconds. Senior quarterback Jake Dunniway completed four of seven passes for 65 yards and Fulcher scored on a 1-yard run.

Tau-Tolliver figured he was due to break a return when the kickoff by Richmond’s Jake Larsen landed in his arms. And Sacramento State was overdue to score after winning the coin toss and deferring to receive the second-half kickoff. The Hornets deferred four times during the regular season without a single point to show for those decisions.

The fifth time was a charm and Tau-Tolliver provided it. The call was for a return to the right and Tau-Tolliver thought he could outrun two Richmond players charging from the left that the Hornets opted not to block. Those two players arrived faster than he expected, however, so he had to change course and looked to his left for room to run.

Tau-Tolliver followed Skattebo, who cleared the way with a crushing block on Tristan Wheeler. Tau-Tolliver then “turned on the jets,” put a spin move on Trae Tomlinson and skipped away from Kaiden Pritchett after Pritcheet dove at his ankles. He was escorted along the sideline and to the end zone by Darian Pollard, who cut off Larsen and then raised his arms to avoid the risk of being penalized for clipping.

His return was the Hornets’ third for a touchdown this season. The first two were unconventional with Skattebo and Martin scoring after fielding onside kicks. Tau-Tolliver’s return tied the fifth longest in the program’s history. Mario Bobino and James Ferguson had 100-yard returns in 1984 and 1985, respectively. Tau-Tolliver had a 98-yard return as a senior at Reed High in Sparks, Nev., against Damonte Ranch in 2021.

Sacramento State had a season-high 472 yards of total offense against Richmond. Dunniway finished with a season-high 317 passing yards despite having to throw a rain-soaked ball. He tied the score at 31-all early in the fourth quarter with a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marshel Martin on third-and-19. O’Hara broke the tie with 6:28 remaining by lofting a 51-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Pierre Williams.

The pass was the longest of O’Hara’s career and tied Dunniway for the Hornets’ longest this season. Sacramento State had two 100-yard receivers in a game for the first time since 2019. Martin set career highs for receptions (10) and receiving yards (148) in the fourth 100-yard game of his career. The junior caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from O’Hara in the first quarter to give the Hornets a 7-0 lead. Williams caught four passes for 107 yards, reaching the century mark for the 10th time in four seasons.

Second-seeded Sacramento State will put its 12-0 record on the line Friday night when No. 7 Incarnate Word (11-1) visits Hornet Stadium. The teams do not have a common opponent, but there is one connection. Incarnate Word beat Nevada 55-41, Nevada lost 17-14 to Colorado State and Sacramento State routed Colorado State 41-10.

Big Sky pie for Hornets, Aggies

Sacramento State and UC Davis had 33 reasons to give thanks Wednesday when the All-Big Sky Conference team was announced. The Hornets set a school record with 18 players honored, which was fitting given that Sacramento State was 8-0 in the Big Sky and will take an 11-0 record into the FCS playoffs as the No. 2 seed. The Aggies had 15 players selected after a 6-5 season that fell short of the postseason and expectations.

Sacramento State earned two of the top four honors with running back Cameron Skattebo and linebacker Marte Mapu being named the Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, respectively. This was the first time that one team swept the awards since 2012. Troy Taylor shared the Coach of the Year award with Brett Vigen of Montana State, which was also 8-0 in the Big Sky and is the No. 4 seed in the playoffs with a 10-1 record. Taylor was lauded for the third time in as many seasons with the Hornets.

Linebacker Armon Bailey joined Mapu on the first-team defense. Bailey leads the Hornets in tackles (78) and sacks (six), a testament to the Vanden High graduate’s perseverance after missing nine games in 2021 and five in 2019 with injuries. Sacramento State did not play in the spring of 2021 after COVID-19 forced the 2020 season to be postponed.

Other first-team selections for the Hornets were wide receiver Pierre Williams, tight end Marshel Martin, guards Jackson Slater and Brandon Weldon, kicker Kyle Sentkowski and Asher O’Hara as the all-purpose player.

UC Davis had six players selected to the first-team – quarterback Miles Hastings, running back Ulonzo Gilliam, tackle Nick Amoah, defensive end Zach Kennedy, safety Rex Connors and special teamer Lan Larison. Hastings led the conference in passing yards (3,048) and completion percentage (69.8) in his first season as the full-time starter. The sophomore threw six interceptions in 367 passing attempts this season after being picked off eight times in 215 attempts last season, when he started five games.

Dean puts spin on Hornets’ win

Patrick Dean was a dead man walking even though he was running as fast as he could. Weber State wide receiver Jacob Sharp had a step on the Sacramento State cornerback and Bronson Barron’s pass was on the money. Dean’s crime was biting on Sharp’s inside move, allowing Sharp to go free.

Dean was guilty of being deceived by Sharp, who went from making an inside move to turning outside and running away. Dean counted on his speed to catch Sharp. After all, Dean competed in track at Palomares High School in Pomona and had a personal best of 10.71 seconds in the 100-meter dash.

Patrick Dean (2) thwarted a Weber State scoring opportunity with an interception.

“I know I’m fast, so 99 percent of the time I can catch up,” Dean explained Wednesday as the Hornets prepared for Friday’s game at Portland State. Sacramento State is rolling at 6-0 in the Big Sky and 9-0 overall after a 33-30 victory in Ogden, Utah. Portland State is 3-3 and 4-5. The Vikings were no match for Weber State on Oct. 15 in a 42-7 loss at home.

Barron completed 21 of 31 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns against Portland State. He was not as efficient against Sacramento State, completing 15 of 38 passes for 154 yards and two scores. His best throw of the day came in the third quarter with Sharp, a graduate of Bethel High in Vallejo, going against Dean.

Weber State trailed 23-14 and faced third-and-10 at its own 19-yard line with six minutes to go in the quarter. Barron took the snap with the intent of getting more than a first down for the Wildcats. Barron maneuvered in the pocket as he kept his eyes locked on Sharp and let the ball fly.

Sharp had an opportunity to redeem himself after a 5-yard pass on first down went through his hands and off his chest. Barron’s third-down heave traveled 50 yards and reached Sharp at the Sacramento State 36. The ball went off Sharp’s hands, however, and stuck in Dean’s right elbow.

Dean managed to keep the ball tucked away as he tumbled over Sharp, landed on his head and spun on it as if he were breakdancing. “I didn’t know I had the ball until I got to the ground,” he said. “I don’t know why I was spinning. I was in kind of an awkward position. I was just trying to get up.”

His interception kept momentum on Sacramento State’s side and the Hornets made the most of the turnover. Sacramento State drove 75 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown to extend its lead to 30-14. The drive drained nearly six minutes off the clock and culminated on the first play of the fourth quarter when quarterback Asher O’Hara scored on a 1-yard run.

O’Hara can thank Dean for his second rushing touchdown of the game and his 16th this season. O’Hara and Montana State’s Sean Chambers share the Big Sky lead in rushing touchdowns. They are tied for second in the FCS behind North Alabama’s ShunDerrick Powell with 17.

There is no statistic for an assist in college football, but O’Hara would credit Dean with one after Dean picked the perfect time to get his first interception in two seasons with the Hornets and then putting his own spin on it.

Hornets unleash Skatteboo

Cameron Skatteboo had yet to be unleashed last October when Sacramento State traveled to Montana and came away with a 28-21 victory. The win was the first for the Hornets in 13 trips to Missoula. The loss was the first at home for the Grizzlies since 2018.

Skatteboo was a sophomore at Rio Linda High School in 2018. He made the varsity team and proved he belonged with the big boys, running for 992 yards and nine touchdowns. That was a preview of coming attractions. Skatteboo was honored as the Sacramento Bee Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 after leading the Knights to the state Division 5A championship by running for 3,550 yards and scoring 42 touchdowns.

Cameron Skatteboo

Rio Linda’s playbook was easy for Skatteboo to comprehend because there were just six running plays out of the Power I formation. Sacramento State’s offense is far more challenging with multiple formations and personnel packages. Hornets head coach Troy Taylor admits to asking more of his running backs than taking a handoff and finding a hole, so Skatteboo was overwhelmed when he first looked at the playbook.

“It was shell shock for sure,” Skatteboo said after practice Tuesday. “I know I’m a smart football player and could learn the playbook. It took a minute to get going. I knew I could get the hang of it. It was just a matter of time for the coaches to trust that I got it.”

Opportunity knocked for Skatteboo last season when junior Elijah Dotson left the program and entered the transfer portal. Skatteboo climbed one rung on the depth chart and playing time followed because Taylor shuffles running backs in and out of the game. Skatteboo saw extensive action for the first time against Northern Arizona last Oct. 23. The freshman’s first run went for 6 yards. His second was an 11-yard burst for a touchdown to give Sacramento State a 30-0 lead en route to a 44-0 victory.

Skatteboo rushed for a team-high 117 yards on 10 carries against the Lumberjacks. After having just two carries for 19 yards in the first five games, Skatteboo ran for 501 yards and six touchdowns on 55 carries in the final six games. He came close to gaining a first down every time he tucked the ball into his arms, averaging 9.12 yards per carry.

“We knew (Skatteboo) was going to be pretty good, but we also knew he had a lot to learn,” Taylor said. “He started getting more and more reps (in practice), so he got comfortable in the offense and got confident. That allowed him to play fast and physical.”

Montana will get its first look at Skatteboo on Saturday night when the Grizzlies invade Hornet Stadium at 8 p.m. ESPN2 picked a great game to televise nationally. Sacramento State is 6-0 for the first time since 1991, ranked No. 2 in the FCS poll for the first time in the program’s history and is the only Division I team (FBS or FCS) to have not trailed at any time in a game this season. Montana is 5-1 and ranked No. 7.

Eastern Washington can give Montana a scouting report of what to expect from Skatteboo, who rushed for a career-high 201 yards and caught a touchdown pass last Saturday in the Hornets’ 52-28 win over the Eagles. Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara split time at quarterback as usual. Dunniway threw for three touchdowns and O’Hara ran for three to give him a team-high 11 rushing scores. Skatteboo is second with five.

Skatteboo has no problem with O’Hara carrying the ball in goal-line situations. And even if he did, he would never say anything. “I’ve never complained, ” he said. “No matter who gets the ball, it’s never been a fight. Of course, I want the ball. I might have thought it myself, but that’s not something you bring to the attention of anybody else. You keep that to yourself and you keep your head down and you play for your tea

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.”