If there was a pivotal moment in Sacramento State’s 56-27 Big Sky Conference homecoming loss to Cal Poly on Saturday night at Hornet Stadium, it came early in the third quarter.
That’s when Sac State’s star middle linebacker and leading tackler Darnell Sankey suffered what appeared to be a right knee injury while making a tackle near midfield. The 6-foot-1, 250-pound junior had to be assisted off the field and would not return.
At that point, Sankey had 10 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery while keeping his team in the game. The Hornets (4-4, 1-3) trailed 21-20 in what had been a back-and-forth affair with the Mustangs (4-3, 3-1).
But shortly after a distraught Sankey was put on the trainer’s table along the sideline for treatment, Cal Poly freshman Joe Protheroe burst through a huge hole in the middle of the defensive line and went 62 yards for a touchdown.
That was a gut-punch to the Hornets and their season-best home crowd of 10,934.
Cal Poly scored three more touchdowns before Sac State quarterback Garrett Safron and wide receiver DeAndre Carter, both on another record-breaking night, combined for a five-yard touchdown with 9:23 to play.
But the damage was done. The only thing left for the Hornets’ fans to look forward to was the postgame fireworks show.
“He’s the heart and soul of that defense,” said Sac State coach Jody Sears. “Losing Sankey could have been a factor, but at the same time the next man has got to step up.”
Sears said he didn’t know the severity of Sankey’s injury.
Sankey was replaced by true freshman Tyler Meteer from Del Oro High School. He finished with seven tackles.
“Darnell is a major part of our team, but we have a next-man-up mentality,” Carter said. “So Tyler Meteer came in and played a pretty good game.”
Added Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh: “For them, that’s their best linebacker, so anytime you lose a guy like that, you’re going to find out if the backup can play at that level.”
In passing for 306 yards, Safron now has 8,448 career passing yards, moving to No. 1 ahead of Ryan Leadingham (8,376 from 2001-04). Safron, who threw two interceptions, already holds records for career passing touchdowns, passing attempts, passing completions and total offense.
Carter’s first touchdown catch, a 26-yarder in the second quarter, was the 28th of his career, breaking the school record of 27 he held along with former San Francisco 49ers receiver Fred Amey (2001-04).
Triple-option Cal Poly entered the game with the Football Championship Subdivision’s top rushing offense, averaging 327.8 yards. Sac State came in ranked 10th nationally in total offense and with a quick-striking reputation.
But it was Cal Poly’s scores that came in a flash – seven of eight scoring drives took less than two minutes, including Protheroe’s run that took a mere 10 seconds. In all, Cal Poly had 504 yards, including 393 rushing.
“That’s a hard offense to defend,” Sears said. “You’ve got to be right on. If you are six inches off, it’s a 15-yard play. If you’re a yard off, you give up a touchdown. We just gave up too many big plays.”
Sac State tried to slow things down a bit in the first half, moving the ball more methodically than usual. The Hornets had the ball for 19 minutes, 21 seconds – nearly nine more than Cal Poly – and yet still trailed 21-20 after two quarters.
“We just didn’t get it done in all three phases of the game,” Carter said. “It’s disappointing, but we’ve got to come back Monday and get ready for Montana in two weeks (Nov. 1).”