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.”

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.

Hornets flip script on Aggies

UC Davis linebacker Nick Eaton resorted to grabbing Kevin Thomson’s towel in hopes of stopping Sacramento State’s quarterback in the 66th annual Causeway Classic on Nov. 23. Thomson and the Hornets were not to be denied, erasing a 14-point deficit to beat the Aggies 27-17 and earn a share of the Big Sky Conference championship in Troy Taylor’s first season at the helm. Sacramento State will host an FCS playoff game for the first time Dec. 7 against Austin Peay.