The Sacramento State Hornets are one of the FCS’ biggest enigmas as spring ball closes.
They’re fresh off an outright Big Sky title last fall (the first such in program history) and three years ago they claimed a share of the championship alongside Weber State. Sac State didn’t play in the makeshift spring season in 2020, otherwise they may very well have nabbed another. With an overall record of 18-7 since 2019, the Hornets are currently seeing one of the most successful stretches in school history. So why is no one talking about it?
It certainly doesn’t help that they play in an FCS power conference. The Big Sky, that sent five teams to the playoffs last year, saw Montana State reach the championship game. Eastern Washington lit up the scoreboard in almost every contest they were in and had the Walter Payton Award winner as their QB. Montana made a run to the quarterfinals last winter and even UC Davis has been on the rise of late. Teams like that command attention, and boy did they get it.
The Grizzlies and the Eagles met twice last year and got pushed to ESPN networks both times. The Bobcats ran it all the way to Frisco and garnered plenty of eyes along the way, selling out to an over-capacity crowd in the national semifinals that was a spectacle for television audiences. In the midst of all that postseason chaos that surrounded the Big Sky, though, it became easy to forget who actually won the league title. It wasn’t the ‘Cats. It wasn’t the Griz. It wasn’t the Eagles.
Head coach Troy Taylor has improved the program significantly in his three seasons with the Hornets. He took them from the laughing stock of the conference to the top of the heap quickly and has justly been rewarded with two Big Sky Coach of the Year honors (2019, 2021). They’ve beaten a slew of ranked opponents over the last few years including a No. 5 Montana team on the road last October; a victory that proved pivotal to their conference championship.
For all the recent successes, though, Sac State has been plagued by one big dark cloud. They’ve struggled to win in the playoffs.
In 2019 the Hornets finished the regular season with the 4-seed heading into the playoffs for their first-ever postseason appearance. This gave them a bye and a home game with the momentum of a 9-3 season behind them. However, they promptly whiffed to an underdog Austin Peay team that came in and ran for almost 300 yards and put up 42 points.
It was, undoubtedly, a disappointing end to an exciting season. What made things worse, however, was the fact that Sac State had an almost carbon copy of that 2019 campaign in 2021. In the regular season they again won nine games, enough to claim the Big Sky title outright. Once more they earned a bye and a #4 seed heading into the tournament, but again a band of road warriors... this time South Dakota State... came in and delivered a gut-wrenching early exit.
The Jacks used the same formula that the Governors had a couple of years prior: jump out to a big lead and then smother with the running game. The Hornets staged a comeback but some late game trickery gave SDSU the win.
That brings us to now...
You’ve got to believe that Taylor would love nothing more than to put this idea to bed and win another Big Sky title while doing so. His team will have all the tools to do it too. Last year’s exciting pair of quarterbacks, Asher O’Hara and Jake Dunniway will both be back as seniors and that’s huge. Dunniway had a .632 completion percentage in 2021 and threw for 12 touchdowns. O’Hara was an everything guy and led the team in rushing with 662 yards last fall. He accounted for 16 total touchdowns as well.
The team’s leading receiver Pierre Williams will also return. Williams is coming off 50-reception season that saw him accumulate 764 yards and three scores. The fact that all three of these guys are back means that the Hornets offense could (and should) be as potent as ever in 2022.
So as the season draws nearer and you inevitably hear hype surrounding teams like Montana State, Montana, and Eastern Washington, remember that there’s a team from Sacramento that are the ones who will actually be defending a trophy and perhaps no one is more hungry.
Those postseason losses weigh heavy and Taylor’s squad could be the most dangerous one in the Big Sky this year for that fact alone. All the ingredients for another run are there for the Hornets and if it happens, it won’t be from out of the blue.
Sac State kicks off their season against Dixie State (soon to be Utah Tech) on September 3.