Sac State is a team on the rise. Going from obscurity for many years to now a Top 10 FCS team, what the Hornets have done in the last two fall seasons is impressive. But they’re also developing a negative reputation typically reserved for Jacksonville State. And that’s losing right away in the playoffs as a high seed.
Ranked No. 7 in the Stats Perform Preseason Top 25 media poll, can Sac State’s experienced team get over that hump? Let’s take a look at the team and discuss.
The Hornets finished 9-3 overall and 8-0 in the Big Sky. They received the No. 4 playoff seed, losing 24-19 in the second round against South Dakota State.
Sac State ranked No. 33 in FCS scoring offense (30.3 PPG) and No. 15 in scoring defense (19.1 PPG).
The offensive genius of head coach Troy Taylor, a former offensive coordinator at Cal and for the electric 2016 Eastern Washington team, shined last season. The Hornets struggled on offense in the first two games, scoring 19 points against Utah Tech and 16 against Northern Iowa. Taylor made a switch at starting QB, going from Asher O’Hara to Jake Dunniway, a more polished passer. O’Hara remained a key part of the game plan, though, and Sac State was able to execute the running QB/passing QB system.
In Game 3, the Hornets scored 30 points in a 42-30 loss at P5 Cal. Sac State finished the season scoring 30.3 points per game. Dunniway completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 2,576 yards, 12 touchdowns, and five interceptions. O’Hara led the Hornets with 667 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns while throwing for 899 yards and seven scores. Dunniway was named an All-Big Sky Third Team QB, and O’Hara was named an All-Conference First Teamer at the all-purpose spot.
Both QBs are back in 2022 with some great talent around them. Pierre Williams (2,248 career receiving yards and 15 TDs) is our No. 10 returning FCS wide receiver. Marshel Martin (53 catches for 649 yards and six TDs last season) is our No. 7 returning TE. Cameron Skattebo broke through as a freshman last year and has massive potential. He only rushed 57 times last year, but still gained 520 yards (9.1 yards per rush) and six TDs. With a higher workload, he is set for a big 2022 season. Brandon Weldon is one of the top offensive lineman in the Big Sky to help lead the way.
Sac State probably didn’t get enough credit for its defense last year, ranked No. 15 in points allowed (19.1). The Hornets do have to replace three of their top four tacklers, including First Team All-American DE Josiah Erickson and tackles leader Marcus Hawkins. Marte Mapu is back after being the No. 2 tackler with 65 total, plus 5.5 TFLs, four interceptions, and 10 pass breakups. The nickelback/safety is a HERO Sports Preseason Third Team All-American and our No. 6 returning safety.
Sac State will have a new punter, but it returns kicker Kyle Sentkowski, who was named on the All-Big Sky First Team last fall and a Third Team All-American by Stats Perform.
- vs. Utah Tech
- @ No. 21 Northern Iowa
- @ FBS Colorado State
- @ Cal Poly
- vs. Northern Colorado
- @ No. 13 Eastern Washington
- vs. No. 3 Montana
- vs. Idaho
- @ No. 20 Weber State
- @ Portland State
- vs. No. 25 UC Davis
Some questioned Sac State’s Big Sky conference record last year, avoiding teams like Montana State, Eastern Washington, and Weber State. But the Hornets did win at Montana and at UC Davis, two playoff teams. The schedule definitely beefs up in 2022, playing four postseason teams from last year and five overall ranked opponents. The game at UNI, a rematch from last year’s 34-16 loss, is key in Sac State trying to avoid a 1-2 record heading into conference play. Colorado State is a winnable FBS opponent, although it looks to be improved with a lot of transfers and a new head coach in Jay Norvell.
Is the flak this program gets deserved? Maybe some. But this doesn’t exactly equate to JSU, who was known for running through a weak conference, getting a high seed, and then losing right away.
In its 15-1 Big Sky record in the 2019 and 2021 fall seasons, Sac State has beaten Montana twice, UC Davis twice, Eastern Washington, and Montana State.
Sure, the 42-28 loss in the 2019 second round to Austin Peay was embarrassing, a game that saw Sac State fall behind 28-0. And sure, many people will remember the Hornets falling behind 24-0 in last season’s second round to South Dakota State. But the Hornets did make that a competitive game after settling in, losing 24-19 to one of the best teams SDSU has had.
That’s not to totally excuse Sac State going 0-2 in the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. But it’s more to show that a high preseason ranking this year and in past years is still deserved. It’s not like they’ve beaten all cupcakes to inflate their record.
To totally move past that narrative, though, playoff wins need to happen.
This year’s squad is looking strong. The offensive weapons are elite. But the defense will need to replace a lot of production. A tougher schedule also looms with challenging road games at UNI, EWU, Weber State, Portland State, and Colorado State, plus home games vs. Montana and UC Davis. If the Hornets get a seed again this year, it will be very much deserved.
I do think this team will get over the playoff hump this year with a good shot to make the quarterfinals. Is this a semifinal team? A favorable quarterfinal matchup would need to be in place. I don’t believe it is quite ready to break into the top-tier of the FCS. I’m not convinced the team depth and top-end talent are there to knock off an NDSU or SDSU. But also, how many teams are?
In my opinion, it’s hard not to respect what Sac State has accomplished in the last three years. But the Hornets are no longer a feel-good riser in the FCS. They have established themselves as a playoff team. Expectations have heightened. So now it’s time to start doing something in the playoffs. That’s where this program gets complete respect as one of the better teams in the country. The talent and coaching are there to gain that full respect in 2022.
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