The foundation was set for a recovery season of epic proportions.
All five starting offensive linemen returned for Sacramento State, serving as a base for a program in decline. What the Hornets needed was a quarterback, a better collective defensive effort and an infusion of youth to rev things up.
Sac State accomplished all of those things, and it was on full display much of Saturday afternoon at Hornet Stadium, and the decline is no more.
The Hornets rolled up 591 yards and led by as many as 31 points before holding off rival UC Davis 52-47 in the 64th Causeway Classic to cap the regular season with plenty of argument to keep this season of sudden promise going.
Sac State will learn Sunday morning if it earned an at-large berth to the FCS playoffs, which would be a program first. Regardless, it’s been a remarkable campaign with high hopes for next fall. Or, as Hornets cornerback Dre Terrell said, “We want to keep this train rolling.”
Sac State at 7-4 overall and 6-2 in Big Sky play produced its best showing since joining the conference in 1996. The Hornets won two games in each of the previous two seasons and were picked to finish 12th in the 13-team Big Sky this season in separate coach and media polls.
The emphatic turnaround is credit to a resilient coaching staff headed by Jody Sears, in the final year of a four-year contract. He wants to return. His players want him back. No decision will be made, athletic director Mark Orr said Saturday, until the coming weeks.
For now, it’s celebration mode.
Benefiting from the veteran line was quarterback Kevin Thomson, who passed for 276 yards and three touchdowns, hitting Andrew Lindsey, Isiah Hennie and BJ Perkinson for scoring strikes. A poised junior transfer from UNLV, Thomson rushed for 69 yards and a score. He has labored through elbow and knee injuries to lead this bunch in producing some of the most impressive plays and statistics of any quarterback in program history.
And those young legs? Sac State has a lot of bounce to its step.
True freshman Elijah Dotson of Antelope High School ran for 92 yards and a score, and Perkinson, a converted receiver, ran for 83 yards and a touchdown.
The defense showed glimpses, including Terrell, one of seven locally recruited starters on the unit. But the Aggies made it a game, coming in 5-5 and expecting to halt their consecutive losing seasons at six behind first-year coach Dan Hawkins.
UCD had 659 yards and scored 26 unanswered points before Sac State held on downs with 1:33 to go and ran out the clock. As time expired, an army of Sac State coaches threw their arms up triumphantly as scores of Hornets players sprinted to the end zone to hoist the Causeway trophy.
Jake Maier passed for 325 yards and two touchdowns for UCD, including a shovel pass to tight end Wesley Preece to account for the final score with 3:35 left.
“Oh, it got a little wild and woolly there,” Sears said amid laughter, a country boy who said he grew up on the back of a saddle in Washington state and sounded the part after the game. “I’m just so proud of these kids. We’ve come so far. It’s part of the process and I love it.
“The resiliency that they’ve shown all year ... I think they’re the hottest team in the Big Sky right now and they deserve to be in the national playoffs. When you build a program, you’ve got to go through the muck, and we did. Everyone was crying, throwing their hat: Sears can’t win. We don’t have a quarterback ...
“Guys believed, trusted the teaching and the culture and now they reap the benefits. I love them.”
Thomson said he is indebted to Sears for offering him a scholarship after injuries derailed his hopes at UNLV. His vote is to retain Sears.
“We love Coach Sears,” he said. “He’s done a great job.”
Said Terrell, “I love everything about the program. I wouldn’t change a thing. We’re just getting started.”