It all comes down to the Causeway Classic in two weeks. The first chance for Sacramento State to make the playoffs since 1988 hangs on the Hornets traveling to UC Davis and beating the Aggies.
A win Saturday against visiting Montana State would have enhanced the Hornets' odds of being selected for a berth in the 20-team NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. But the Hornets committed four second-half turnovers and lost 20-17.
Sac State quarterback Garrett Safron threw two interceptions and had a fumble, plus a Montana State punt touched Eddie Gillies' right heel as he was running downfield to set up a return. The turnovers only yielded three points for the Bobcats (8-1, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) but get those back and perhaps the two teams are locked in another overtime game like they were in 2010, albeit a game the Bobcats also won by three points, 64-61, at Hornet Field.
With the NCAA expanding to 20 teams in the playoffs there's a race to seven wins. Get seven wins over quality opponents and the selection committee will likely punch your ticket to the postseason. Sac State is 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big Sky Conference. The Hornets have the victory over Pac-12 Colorado and last week's 35-29 victory over then No. 11 Cal Poly. But Cal Poly lost Saturday to No. 7 Eastern Washington, 34-17, which tarnishes the Hornets' victory a bit and sets up the all-important Causeway Classic Nov. 17 at Aggies Stadium. The Hornets have a bye next week. The Aggies had a bye this week.
"They're all big games (in the Big Sky)," Hornets head coach Marshall Sperbeck said. "We'll see how this all shakes out."
Montana State running back Cody Kirk had two touchdown runs of 15 and two yards that were bookends to the 20-17 win.
Kirk finished with 136 yards on 24 carries a week after a 25-carry, 160-yard game in a 55-10 win against North Dakota in Bozeman, Mont. Kirk looked none the worse for wear after the game, other than a nasty looking road rash on his right foreman. It was his second game back after missing three games due to a sore hamstring. He bounded off the Sacramento State field.
"I had a month off," Kirk said about the pep in his step. "It was like a month-long vacation. But winning also helps."
The Bobcats are 22-3 under head coach Rob Ash when any Bobcats running back rushes for at least 100 yards. Kirk has five of the last six 100-yard plus games and had 77 yards on 11 carries in the first half. His game-winner came on a two-yarder around the left end with 8:13 remaining. The Hornets got a healthy dose of Kirk on that drive too as he accounted for 34 of the 64-yard game-winning drive.
"You have to gang tackle him," said Hornets linebacker Todd Davis, who finished with 12 tackles and one of the Hornets' season-high-tying five sacks.
Saturday was the first time the Hornets allowed consecutive 100-yard rushers since 2008. Last week, Cal Poly's Deonte Williams ran for 168 yards in the loss.
Sac State went ahead 17-13 late in the third quarter when Safron hooked up with Morris Norrise for a 76-yard touchdown pass. The Hornets had a chance to increase the lead to a touchdown but an Edward Ruhnke 53-yard field goal was short to the left. Montana State then marched for the game-winner in six plays capped by Kirk.
Ash had his offense huddle every play of that drive a departure from their normal, no-huddle, hurry-up offense. Ash said he thought Sac State had figured out the Bobcats' play calls and were stunting at the line accordingly.
"We huddled so we wouldn't tip our hand," Ash said. "I thought that was key. They were starting to read us pretty well."