Quarterback Garrett Safron’s two third-quarter interceptions were seen by many as the turning point in Sacramento State’s 44-24 loss at Idaho State on Saturday in the schools’ Big Sky Conference opener.
But another momentum-turner took place late in the first quarter with the Hornets leading 7-3.
Sac State middle linebacker Darnell Sankey, the Big Sky’s tackles leader and second in the Football Championship Subdivision entering the game, was called for targeting and ejected after a hit to the head of a Bengals receiver as he was crossing over the middle for a pass.
Xavier Finney scored on a 1-yard run a few plays later to put Idaho State ahead for good as the Bengals won their first homecoming game since 2007.
Freshman Tyler Meteer from Del Oro High School played solidly in Sankey’s spot. He tied safety Robbie Kendall with a team-high 16 tackles. But Sac State coach Jody Sears said the 250-pound Sankey’s experience and physical presence was missed.
“It impacted us a lot, especially late when it was still a two-score game; there were seven minutes left and we had three timeouts,” Sears said. “There was plenty of time. But I think we were pretty gassed at that point.”
Safron had just completed his third touchdown pass to DeAndre Carter as the Hornets closed to 37-24 with 7:21 to play. But Idaho State drove 75 yards in eight plays and scored on Finney’s 3-yard touchdown run to secure the win.
Ultimately, though, Sears said it was the Hornets’ inability to better defend against deep throws by Idaho State’s Justin Arias and second-half turnovers that “absolutely crippled us” – mistakes that Sac State can ill afford when it hosts No. 13 Montana State on Saturday night.
The Bobcats have had a dominant hold on the Hornets in recent years. They have beaten Sac State (3-2, 0-1) eight consecutive times and 11 times in the past 12 meetings.
Montana State (3-2, 1-0), which opened its Big Sky season Saturday with a 29-18 win over North Dakota in Bozeman, has an emerging quarterback in sophomore Dakota Prukop. He has passed for eight touchdowns and rushed for six.
“The thing about Montana State is you know they are going to be well coached and extremely physical,” Sears said.
Safron, who completed 33 of 49 passes for 382 yards while also rushing for 79 yards, is now Sac State’s career leader in total offense (8,855 yards) and passing completions (662). His three touchdown throws added to his career passing touchdown lead of 64. Carter’s three touchdown catches moved the senior to within three of Fred Amey’s all-time record 27 touchdown receptions.
“They are arguably the most talented team in the conference,” Gould said.
Like UCD (1-3, 0-1), Portland State (1-3, 0-0) is battle-tested.
The Vikings, coached by former Jesuit High star Nigel Burton, lost earlier games to Football Bowl Subdivision Oregon State 29-14 and Washington State 59-21. The Aggies fell to No. 14 Stanford 45-0 and Colorado State 49-21.
UCD kept Eastern Washington’s prolific offense off the field for most of the first half last Saturday in trailing 9-7. But the Eagles pulled away with three touchdowns in the third quarter in both teams’ Big Sky opener.
“That was a tale of two halves,” Gould said. “The guys did a phenomenal job of executing the game plan in the first half, but we weren’t able to get it done.”
Linebacker Steven Pitts had a strong game with 11 tackles, including three for losses, for the Aggies.
UCD played without senior free safety Charles Boyett (ankle), though he is expected to be ready for Portland State. Another key senior defender, linebacker Ryan Dimino (shoulder), will be out at least another week, Gould said.
The Hornets will return to San Luis Obispo, the site of their first NCAA Division I regional appearance last season, for a weekend series against Cal Poly on March 13-15. Cal Poly eliminated the Hornets from last spring’s tournament.
Sac State, which should be just as competitive this season, also will play a four-game series Feb. 26-March 1 at Texas Tech, which advanced to the College World Series and finished No. 8 in the country.
The Hornets return to Raley Field for three night games, hosting Nevada on March 17, Fresno State on April 22 and UC Davis on May 5.
Sac State went 40-24 last season and posted wins over ranked teams Oregon State, Texas A&M, Fresno State and Arizona State, who the Hornets eliminated from the NCAA regional.