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.