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.

Success at last for Sac State

The Hornets are in good hands when wide receiver Pierre Williams has the ball.

Three victories in 2019 were enough to convince Pierre Williams that Sacramento State made the right decision in hiring Troy Taylor. The wide receiver was a redshirt freshman in 2018 when the Hornets finished 0-7 in the Big Sky Conference and 2-8 overall. A 3-2 start in 2019 made Williams a believer in his new head coach and a new direction.

Williams knew nothing about Taylor other than his father mentioning that Taylor had been successful at Folsom High School. The proof for Williams would have to come in what Taylor could do with the Hornets. Victories against Southern Oregon, Northern Colorado and Eastern Washington ensured Sacramento State would not finish 2-8 again.

Even more meaningful for Williams was the Hornets’ newfound perseverance in close losses against two FBS teams, Arizona State and Fresno State. The Hornets trailed 9-0 after three quarters against the Sun Devils in a 19-7 loss. Sacramento trailed 14-12 at halftime in a 34-20 loss to Fresno State. Williams was buying what Taylor was selling.

“It was just a different feeling,” Williams said Wednesday after practice in Hornet Stadium, where UC Davis will come calling on Saturday for the 68th Causeway Classic. “I just knew in 2019 that once we won more than two games that we were going to be OK.”

Pierre Williams

Williams would rather not be reminded these days about 2018. A season that had gone so wrong ended on the worst possible note with a 56-13 loss to UC Davis at the University of Nevada. At least the Hornets were spared from being humiliated at home because the Causeway Classic was moved to escape the wildfire smoke.

Compounding the agony of defeat for the Hornets was having to watch the Aggies celebrate on the field. The victory earned UC Davis a share of the Big Sky championship and its first ticket to the FCS playoffs. Sacramento State ended the season with a seven-game losing streak that resulted in head coach Jody Sears losing his job.

The only solace for Williams was realizing he would have three years to settle the score with UC Davis. “I was close to a lot of the seniors and it was kind of sad to see them crying and upset because it was their last game of ever playing football,” Williams recalled. “I just didn’t want to go through another season like that – not being on top.”

Sacramento State has been nowhere else since Taylor arrived. The Hornets shared the Big Sky title with Weber State in 2019 as both teams finished 7-1. Sacramento State claimed it outright last year by going 8-0 with the cherry on top being a 27-7 victory at UC Davis.

At stake for the Hornets on Saturday will be another perfect finish in the Big Sky, an 11-0 regular season and a top seed in the FCS playoffs. The 24-team playoff field will be announced at 9:30 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU as the dust is settling from the Causeway Classic.

Williams is as healthy as he has been in three years and proved it last Friday night at Portland State. The senior set season highs for receptions (seven) and receiving yards (136). He scored his fifth and sixth touchdowns of the season in Sacramento State’s 45-17 victory.

A torn knee ligament prevented Williams from joining his teammates to celebrate after the 2019 Causeway Classic. Ankle surgery last March forced Williams to miss spring workouts and he was kept out of contract drills when training camp began in August. He began to wonder if he would ever get back to what he once was and what he could be.

“Sometimes I get in my own head. I hadn’t been in a helmet and going live for so long,” said Williams, who caught just two passes for 16 yards against Utah Tech in the season opener Sept. 3. His performance against Portland State “reminded me of who I am.”

In case UC Davis needs a reminder, Williams will provide a refresher course.

Hornets, Aggies earn honors

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins had much more on his mind Tuesday than trying to find out how many of his Aggies were selected to the All-Big Sky Conference team. The Aggies are taking a crash course on South Dakota State in preparation for facing the Jackrabbits in the first round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday in Brookings, S.D. Even after Hawkins learned 12 players were honored, he did not jump out of his seat at his weekly press conference and celebrate.

“For every head coach who goes through the all-conference selection committee, it’s unbelievable,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of bartering that goes on and a lot of arguing. Life’s not fair, football’s not fair and in many cases all-conference teams are not fair. I’ve been doing this a long time and all-conference teams are always a head-scratcher. And they’ll probably continue to be.”

Josiah Erickson (44)

Three UC Davis players were named to the first team – guard Jake Parks, cornerback Brandon Perryman and running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. Big Sky champion Sacramento State had six first-team selections – wide receiver Pierre Williams, tight end Marshel Martin, center Thomas Parker, defensive end Josiah Erickson, kicker Kyle Sentkowski and all-purpose player Asher O’Hara.

Five Sacramento State players were second-team selections – offensive tackle Kooper Richardson, guard Brandon Weldon, outside linebacker Marte Mapu, inside linebacker Marcus Hawkins and cornerback Munchie Filer III. Richardson played three seasons at UC Davis and came to Sacramento State as a graduate transfer to play for his father Kris and with his brother Kaden.

UC Davis swept the second-team selections picks for special teams with punter Dan Whelan, kicker Isaiah Gomez, kick returner Lan Larison, punt returner Isaiah Thomas and all-purpose player Trent Tompkins,. Other second-team picks for the Aggies were tight end McCallan Castles, center Connor Pettek, defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers and safety Jaylin White. Sacramento State had five third-team selections – quarterback Jake Dunniway, running back Cameron Skattebo, cornerback Malik Jeter and punter Sam Clark. Defensive tackle Jett Stanley was honorable mention.

The Hornets are the No. 4 seed in the FCS playoffs and await the winner of the UC Davis-South Dakota State game in the second round on Dec. 4 at Hornet Stadium. UC Davis would welcome another shot at Sacramento State after the Hornets rolled to a 27-7 rout in the 67th annual Causeway Classic. Sacramento State has won the past two Causeway clashes and would likely be riding a three-game winning streak against UC Davis had the Hornets played last spring.