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.

Aggies want King to have a ball

Devon King thought he had scored against Stanford after receovering what he believed to be a latera, but the play was eventually ruled a forward pass.

UC Davis has lost its past five games against Pacific 12 Conference opponents by an average of 34 points.The closest was a 30-10 loss at Stanford in 2018, and that game could have been much closer. The Aggies led 3-0 for nearly seven minutes, and it could have been 10-0 by the time Stanford got on the scoreboard.

Stanford quarter back K.J. Costello had already thrown one interception when UC Davis linebacker Mason Moe pressured him into a wobbly pass midway through the first quarter. Freshman cornerback Devon King alertly scooped the ball on a bounce behind the line of scrimmage and dashed 18 yards to the end zone.

King was immediately mobbed by his teammates, but the celebration did not last long. The referees huddled and ruled Costello’s arm was going forward when the ball left his right hand. That turned what King thought was a lateral into an incomplete pass. The Aggies have been wondering “what if” for nearly a year.. 

“I always think about it,” said King, who was not only referring to his touchdown return being erased. He also bemoaned the opportunity UC Davis squandered to join FCS teams that have upset ranked FBS squads (Stanford was ranked ninth at the time). UC Davis opens Saturday at Cal, but the Bears are not ranked.

FBS schools pay FCS opponents thousands of dollars to supposedly be easy prey. FCS teams take the money and treat the game as a measuring stick against a supposedly superior opponent. King is not buying that. He believes with every braid in his long hair that the Aggies can beat any team on any given Saturday.

“We’re not just going to show up,” King replied when asked how the Aggies can benefit from facing FBS teams. “Our coaches have told us we can win every game we play, so we’re going to play every game to win.”

The 2019 edition of the Aggies is far different from the teams that lost by 52-3 to Cal in 2010, 48-14 to Arizona State in 2011, 45-0 to Stanford and 53-28 to Oregon in 2016. UC Davis is coming off a 10-3 season in which it shared the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time.

Although it did not count, King’s fumble return against Stanford revealed his ball-hawking ability. His quick thinking was honed in practice by defensive backs coach Cha’pelle Brown, who was a three-year starter in the secondary for UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins when Hawkins was running the show at Colorado.

“Our coach always preaches to us that whenever we see the ball on the ground, pick it up and run with it,” King explained. “It’s something we work on every day in practice – scoop and score. When it happened in the game, it was like repetition.”

King struck again last Oct. 27 at Montana with two fourth-quarter interceptions to seal the Aggies’ comeback from an 18-point deficit for a 49-21 victory. Two weeks later at Eastern Washington, King stripped the ball from wide receiver Terence Grady at the UC Davis 17-yard-line to prevent the Eagles from scoring.

Isaiah Thomas was bailed out by King against Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic a week later. Thomas fumbled on a punt return, and the ball bounced backward to the UC Davis 24-yard line. King somehow navigated through four Sacramento State players to locate the ball and pounce on it. Instead of a turnover, UC Davis took possession and drove 76 yards for a touchdown to lead 35-10 at halftime.

“It’s just awareness and always trying to be around the ball,” King said. “Whenever you run to the ball, good things happen.”