Sacramento State’s running attack has been a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season.
The Hornets are averaging 173.4 rushing yards per game, fifth best in the Big Sky Conference, a stat boosted by last Saturday’s season-high 324-yard performance in a 42-35 win over Portland State at Hornet Stadium.
Senior running back Jordan Robinson accounted for 262 yards and four touchdowns to earn Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors on Monday.
The win not only ended a four-game losing streak but gave the Hornets (2-8, 2-5) momentum entering the 63rd Causeway Classic at UC Davis (2-8, 1-6) on Saturday in the season finale for both.
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Sac State’s running attack has come a long way since last season, when it finished last in the 13-team Big Sky. The Hornets averaged a measly 107.5 yards, their worst average in more than a decade.
During the offseason, coach Jody Sears brought in former Eastern Washington and Washington State head coach Paul Wulff as an assistant head coach to rebuild the run game.
While it didn’t lead to instant success – the Hornets had 95 rushing yards in a 38-30 season-opening loss to Division II Western Oregon followed by a 96-yard effort in a 31-3 loss at Fresno State – they have improved dramatically in conference play. Sac State has had only one game with fewer than 154 rushing yards.
“That’s one thing about having coach Wulff – he understands the run game so well,” Sears said. “Regardless of who you are playing, regardless of what kind of front you are going to face, he’s seen it all. But even with all he knows, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about these guys lining up and executing at a high level.”
Junior left tackle Jonathan Bade, junior center Lake Aiono, sophomore right guard Ivan Espiritu and freshman left guard Nick Bianco have started every game this season. Sophomore Taylor Tappin has started the past two games at right tackle since sophomore Ruben Meza broke his hand. Sophomore tight end John McGill, also a good blocker, has started the last seven games.
“The guys up front have really started to jell,” Sears said. “I think the leadership and the maturity and the growth those guys have made physically is very evident as well as the guy running the ball. Jordan has done a really nice job of being patient, attacking when he is supposed to attack, seeing things.”
Robinson’s 262 rushing yards against Portland State ranks sixth in school single-game history, and he was the first Hornet with 300 all-purpose yards since Charles Roberts had 409 in 1999. But Robinson said it wouldn’t have been accomplished without his blockers opening holes big enough for him to burst through for touchdowns of 75, 40, 30 and 9 yards.
“They’re great,” Robinson said. “They have been working hard all season, starting from the spring. (They’ve) been a major difference.”
UC Davis coach Ron Gould, a former running backs coach at Cal, said the Aggies will have their hands full dealing with Sac State’s run game
“Those guys are really physical up front, and you have a dynamic runner in Jordan,” Gould said. “He doesn’t need much space, and he does a great job of running between the tackles and running after contact. With his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, he is really dangerous.”
Robinson ranks sixth in Sac State history with 2,671 career rushing yards and is 101 yards from overtaking Troy Mills (2,771) for fifth place. Robinson, from Chino Hills, also is Sac State’s all-time receptions leader by a running back with 102 catches for 793 yards.
Bade said it’s rewarding watching Robinson run through some of the holes he and his fellow linemen help create.
“It’s amazing,” said Bade, who has started 21 consecutive games. “It makes you feel like all the hard work we’ve done this whole time is actually paying off. Losing as many games as we have has been hard. But it’s exciting when you get those chances to see your brothers be successful.”
Bade, Robinson and the Hornets will look to create more success against their rivals.
Sac State is looking to beat the Aggies for only the second time in the last seven meetings and for just the sixth time in the last 25 years.
“It’s a good rivalry,” said Robinson, who had 133 total yards and caught two touchdown passes in the Hornets’ 41-30 win at Aggie Stadium in 2014. “They don’t like us, and we don’t like them. …We want to go and get that (Causeway) trophy and bring it back here and keep it for awhile.”
Robinson rushed 12 times for 56 yards and no touchdowns and had four catches for 25 yards in the Hornets’ 35-21 loss to the Aggies last season.