Aggies deserved nothing more

Five losses did not stop Gardner-Webb from making the FCS playoffs. The Runnin’ Bulldogs earned an automatic bid by overcoming a four-game losing streak to go 5-0 in the Big South Conference. Eleven conference champions earned automatic bids. Sacramento State earned one by finishing 8-0 in the Big Sky for the second consecutive year.

Five Big Sky teams made the 24-team playoff field. Sacramento State is the No. 2 seed after finishing 11-0 in the regular season for the first time. The Hornets will have a bye in the first round and will host the Davidson-Richmond winner on Dec. 3. Montana State also finished 8-0 in the Big Sky and earned the No. 4 seed with a 10-1 overall record.

Also representing the Big Sky will be Weber State (9-2), Idaho (7-4) and Montana (7-4) after each team was awarded an at-large berth. Weber State and Idaho both finished 6-2 to share third place. Montana got a berth despite finishing sixth in the Big Sky at 4-4.

C.J. Hutton catches a pass for UC Davis with Sacramento State’s Caleb Nelson covering.

Montana’s four victories were against teams with a combined conference record of 7-25. The Grizzlies apparently made a case for a berth with a 31-24 overtime loss at Sacramento State and a 24-21 loss at Weber State. Montana’s last shot for a significant Big Sky victory was at Montana State on Saturday and the Grizzlies lost 55-21.

UC Davis finished ahead of Montana at 5-3 and had one significant victory. The Aggies traveled to Idaho and won 44-26 in a game that was not as close as the final score. Like Montana, UC Davis stood toe to toe with Weber State in a 17-12 loss and lost 27-21 in the Causeway Classic on Saturday after taking Sacramento State down to the wire.

A 44-yard field goal by Kyle Sentkowski stretched Sacramento State’s lead to six points with 43 seconds to play. UC Davis was out of timeouts with 92 yards to go. Miles Hastings completed three consecutive passes to C.J. Hutton for 50 yards to give the Aggies a first down at the Hornets’ 42-yard line as the record crowd of 23,073 went bananas.

The clock stopped long enough for the ball to be placed. Once the clock restarted, UC Davis could have spiked the ball to save enough time for a Hail Mary pass to the end zone, The Aggies instead opted to run a play, but Trent Tompkins could not get out of bounds after catching a pass from Hastings. The clock expired and so did the Aggies’ season.

Rex Connors (4) and Jayce Smalley team up to stop Cameron Skattebo.

That was hardly the first bad decision this season by coach Dan Hawkins and his son Cody, the offensive coordinator. In the second quarter of the 41-24 loss at Montana State, UC Davis had Matteo Perez carry the ball instead of Ulonzo Gilliam on third-and-1 at the Bobcats’ 19-yard line. Perez lost 2 yards and the Aggies settled for a 38-yard field goal by Isaiah Gomez. Montana State answered with a field goal of its own to lead 24-13 at halftime.

Gilliam had 24 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown against the Bobcats, but the Aggies’ all-time leading rusher was on the sideline when UC Davis gave the ball to an untested sophomore rather than a proven senior with so much at stake.

A victory against Weber State would have likely sent UC Davis into the playoffs, but the Aggies paid the price for playing it safe. UC Davis was a yard away from a touchdown on the final play of the first half when Hawkins called for Gomez to try a 18-yard field goal. The kick was deflected and went wide right, leaving the Aggies with a 14-6 deficit.

Gomez set a UC Davis record for most field-goal attempts in a game with five. And they were all in the first half. Gomez made two. At least the Aggies did not have Perez attempt a field goal or ask him to throw a pass instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock.

Perez will return in 2023. Gilliam and Gomez will not. Thanks for coming and drive home safely.

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.

It’s now or never for Gilliam

UC Davis football fans must surely remember Ethan Hicks. Who can forget his two carries for 28 yards and a touchdown in the Aggies’ 56-13 victory over Sacramento State in the 2018 Causeway Classic? The game was shifted from UC Davis to the University of Nevada because of smoky skies, but the Aggies still managed to feel right at home.

Hicks’ performance was a total surprise since the senior had more tackles (20) on special teams than rushing attempts (five) in four seasons. Hicks was for once a contributor on offense. Head coach Dan Hawkins prefers to think of all of his players as contributors instead of designating those who are starters and those who do not play much.

UC Davis running back Ulonzo Gilliam

The 43-point victory was the Aggies’ largest against the Hornets since 1982, when UC Davis won 51-6 on its way to finishing 12-1. Hawkins played fullback and Ken O’Brien starred at quarterback as UC Davis won the Northern California Athletic Conference championship for the 12th consecutive year. The Aggies were unbeaten until losing to Southwest Texas State in the Division II championship game.

That was then. Hawkins has not been as fortunate since 2018 against Sacramento State. The Hornets have turned the tide against the Aggies and the entire Big Sky Conference since Troy Taylor became Sacramento State’s head coach. The Hornets shared the Big Sky title with Weber State in 2019 and won it outright last season by going 8-0.

Sacramento State has not lost a Big Sky game on the road with Taylor at the helm. The last conference loss away from Hornet Stadium was in 2018 against UC Davis in Reno. That was the last game for Hornets coach Jody Sears after going 20-35 in five years. Sacramento State lured Taylor away from Utah by offering him a seven-year contract

The Hornets beat the Aggies 27-17 in 2019 by shutting out UC Davis in the second half. Sacramento State won 27-7 last season by holding UC Davis scoreless in the first three quarters. The Aggies would have hosted the Hornets in 2020, but COVID-19 led to the season being reduced to five spring games in 2021. Sacramento State opted to sit out.

Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor

Taylor is an offensive wizard, but defense was the difference for Sacramento State in those two victories. UC Davis managed just 61 rushing yards in 2019 and 73 last Nov. 20. Ulonzo Gilliam is the Aggies’ all-time leading rusher and gained 138 yards against the Hornets in 2018. Gilliam had more yards receiving (62) than rushing (61) against Sacramento State in 2019. The same was true last year as Gilliam was held to 17 yards on eight carries and caught eight passes for 58.

Gilliam has 43 rushing touchdowns in his career, but he has not reached the end zone in three games against the Hornets. He had three touchdown runs Saturday in the Aggies’ 46-26 victory at Idaho, setting career highs for carries (30) and rushing yards (164). Gilliam is the Big Sky’s second-leading rusher in 2022 with 1,132 yards.

Sacramento State’s Cameron Skattebo is the leader with 1,154 yards on 33 fewer carries than Gilliam. Skattebo played in his first Causeway Classic as a true freshman last November and rushed for 69 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown dash. The two talented backs will meet again Saturday when Sacramento State (10-0, 7-0 Big Sky) hosts UC Davis (6-4, 5-2) in what could be Gilliam’s swan song with the Aggies.

UC Davis has to win to have any shot at being among the 24 teams in the FCS playoffs. The field will be announced on Nov. 20. As many as five Big Sky teams – Sacramento State, Montana State, Weber State, Idaho and Montana – could make it since all five are ranked in the latest FCS Coaches Poll. UC Davis made it six this week when it broke into the poll at No. 24.

The Aggies will need much more than 17 yards on the ground from Gilliam to stand any chance.

Much more on fourth-and-4

No one would have questioned Troy Taylor had the Sacramento State coach called a running play on fourth-and-4 at Montana’s 30-yard line. Cameron Skatteboo is averaging 7.8 yards per carry and leads the Big Sky Conference in rushing yards with 851, so the sophomore was about as close as Taylor could come to having a sure thing.

Taylor figured the Grizzlies would be expecting Skatteboo to carry the ball. Taylor also anticipated Montana’s defensive backs would jam Sacramento State’s wide receivers to prevent a short pass by quarterback Jake Dunniway from turning into a first down. Taylor made it seem as if Montana would be ready for whatever play he called.

The Grizzlies had no idea what was coming. Taylor called for wide receiver Jared Gipson to run a stutter route on the right side. Gipson accelerated from the line and stutter stepped once he was inside the 25. Montana cornerback Jayden Dawson must have thought Gipson was gearing down to turn back and be in clear view for Dunniway.

Wide receiver Jared Gipson

Dawson bit on the stutter move and Gipson sprinted past him to catch Dunniway’s pass just inside the 5 before going out of bounds. The Grizzlies argued that Gipson had stepped out as he made the catch, but an instant replay review upheld the ruling on the field.

As the play was being reviewed, Gipson watched the replay on the Hornet Stadium scoreboard and it “showed I was clearly out of bounds. I was like ‘Oh no.’ My heart dropped.” His disappointment did not last long as the review upheld his reception for 26 yards.

Gipson was confident the play would work because practice makes perfect – or at least close enough. “We run the play so much that it’s almost like perfection ,” he said. “Well, not perfection. I wouldn’t say perfection. We’re just really good at it.”

The Grizzlies might have prompted Taylor’s call with their aggressive defense. “They bring a lot of pressure and a lot of movement. And they kept bringing it,” Taylor said. “It was a perfect opportunity (for the stutter route) and our guys executed it.”

Quarterback Jake Dunniway

Dunniway has come to think along the same lines as Taylor and was not surprised by the coach’s call even though the senior admitted it was “ballsy. Dunniway added, “(The Grizzlies) were probably thinking we were going to run the ball or throw something short. I thought it might work because they were trying to jam us.”

Asher O’Hara replaced Dunniway on the next play and dashed into the end zone for his 12th rushing touchdown this season to tie the score with 3:39 to play. O’Hara added his 13th in overtime with a 7-yard run as Sacramento State improved to 7-0 with a 31-24 victory.

Students stormed the field last Saturday as midnight approached to celebrate. Dunniway heard the coaches calling for the players to go to the locker room, but he could not break away from all the hugs and pats on the back. ESPN2 televised the game, so a national audience saw how the FCS half of Division I football can be captivating.

Another battle is in store for Sacramento State at 6 p.m. Saturday when Idaho visits Hornet Stadium for a showdown between 4-0 Big Sky teams. The Vandals are 5-2 overall and their two losses have come against FBS teams, Washington State and Indiana.

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

Hornets put faith in kicker

Missing a field goal on the next play of the first half was bad. Sitting in the locker room at halftime and wondering how many of his Sacramento State teammates were thinking he had let them down was far worse. That the miss was a chip shot from 20 yards only added to Kyle Sentkowski’s agony of the foot.

A 20-yard field goal is the same distance as an extra-point kick. Sentkowski did not miss a PAT in 2021, converting 39 for 39 to become the first kicker in program history to be perfect with at least 30 attempts. He laughed when asked if his 20-yard miss should count as a PAT attempt and erase the record.

“It might as well be,” quipped Sentkowski, who arrived at Sacramento State after two seasons at College of the Siskiyous and redshirted in 2019. The Hornets opted not to play in 2020 because of COVID-19.

Sentkowski waited two years to finally get to kick for the Hornets and then made four of five field goals in the first two games. He made three field goals in as many attempts against Northern Iowa in his home debut on Sept. 11. Then came the bus ride to Berkeley as the Hornets tested their luck against Cal.

Kyle Sentkowski

Sacramento State proved equal to the task in the first half, especially after Cal scored touchdowns on its first two possessions. The Hornets trailed 14-6 in the second quarter when an interception by Munchie Filer III gave them a shot in the arm. Sentkowski then shot himself in the foot by shanking a 37-yard field goal.

Cal stretched its lead to 21-6 by going 85 yards in just three plays to score with 4:01 to play in the first half. That left more than enough time for the Hornets to mount a drive and they did just that, going 65 yards in 11 plays as quarterback Jake Dunniway completed four of seven passes for 52 yards. The drive stalled inside Cal’s 10-yard line, but settling for three points was still a bone for an underdog.

Sentkowski buried it, however, when he missed from 20 yards out. He probably would have rather crawled under a rock than join his teammates in the locker room at halftime, but that is when he learned where he stood with the Hornets. His teammates had his back after he cost them six points.

“The offense is doing its job and getting us down there,” Sentkowski said Tuesday as the Hornets prepared for Saturday’s opener against Utah Tech at 7:30 p.m. “And to be so close, you almost feel like you wasted their opportunity. Twenty- and 30-yarders are chip shots. They should be easy in your sleep.”

Those misses could have haunted Sentkowski to the extent of worrying if head coach Troy Taylor would go with another kicker. A 2-yard touchdown run by Quarterback Asher O’Hara in the third quarter gave Sentkowski an opportunity to regain his confidence with a simple PAT. The Hornets were going to go for a two-point conversion, but a holding penalty left Sentkowski with a 31-yard extra point.

His kick split the uprights. So did his 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Sacramento State scored a meaningless touchdown with 1:28 to play to make Cal’s 42-30 victory appear closer than it was.

“(Taylor) sent me out for a 43-yarder and that was pretty encouraging,” said Sentkowski, who attended Blaine High School in Washington. “We needed a lot of points, but he sent me out there to get three. For me that was like Taylor saying, ‘Hey, we trust you.’”

Sentkowski missed just one field goal in the remaining nine games and finished the season 21 of 25. He set school records for most field goals and points (102) in a season. He was a first-team selection to the All-Big West Conference team.

Taylor admits he is not a “kicking expert,” but he realizes how those misses could have derailed Sentkowski. “You miss two in a row and it’s like ‘Whats going on here?’” Taylor said. “He’s a pretty even keel kid. That (20-yarder) was the last kick he missed for quite a whole. He got on a string. He’s special.”

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.”