There have been plenty of chances for the Sacramento State Hornets to grab their first win of the season. Saturday night at Hornet Stadium, Jaelin Ratliff reached high into the air and snatched that victory .
Nate Ketteringham hit Ratliff for a 15-yard strike in the back corner of the north end zone with 15 seconds remaining to give the Hornets a thrilling 41-38 win over the Montana State Bobcats.
After a 2-9 campaign in 2015 and an 0-4 start this season, Sac State players celebrated in style Saturday, flooding the field as if they had won the Big Sky Conference championship.
Ketteringham, a sophomore, threw for 354 yards and a career-high-tying four touchdowns. Two of those went to Ratliff, who led all receivers with 89 yards on seven catches. The game winner was a beautiful, floating ball that Ratliff snatched by outjumping his single defender. Ratliff came down with one foot inside the end zone.
Then bedlam. The losing streak, and the “yeah, buts” are over. The Hornets have broken the goose egg in the win column into hundreds of pieces.
Remove a 31-3 defeat at Fresno State, and the Hornets have been in every game this season.
Sac State answered a Montana State touchdown with one of its own and appeared to wrest control of the game only to see the game get squirrely. A pair of tipped passes resulted in more interceptions, a blocked point late in the game kept the Hornets from possibly tying the game with a field goal setting up the desperate last drive, and a freshman quarterback came off the bench to rush for 187 yards and three scores.
But the Hornets remained steadfast. Except for the Fresno State loss, the Hornets had lost the other three games by an average of just eight points. They showed moxie in every loss and played evenly with Fresno State until the second half.
There have been flashes of success for the Hornets, but nothing sustained. Ketteringham threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a career-high 96 yards last week in a 42-34 loss at Idaho State. Saturday against Montana State, Ketteringham had another choppy night despite leading the game-winning drive. At times, he looked poised in the pocket and in command. At other times, he tried to thread the ball into tight spots that led to tipped passes and more interceptions.
The Hornets’ defense continues to give up big plays and big numbers on the scoreboard. The Hornets were giving up 31 points a game entering Saturday’s Big Sky Conference matchup. And when the opposing quarterback rushes for nearly 200 yards, the defense is struggling.
Saturday was the first home game since the 38-30 upset loss Sept. 3 to Division II Western Oregon. Montana State beat Western Oregon two weeks ago 55-0.
Montana State had beaten Sac State 10 consecutive times and had won 13 of the last 14 games. The Bobcats still lead the all-time series 17-7. The series stretches back to the 1964 Camellia Bowl, a game the Bobcats won 28-7. The only Big Sky Conference school with a longer history with Sac State is UC Davis.
In 2014, the last year the two teams met, the Bobcats won in a shootout with the Hornets, 59-56. In 2010, Montana State won 64-61 in overtime. The Bobcats seem to like Sac State’s field. They’ve averaged 39 points the last six games at Hornet Stadium.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Hornets. They host North Dakota next Saturday. The Fighting Hawks are tied atop the Big Sky at 2-0 following a 31-24 victory over No. 16 Cal Poly on Saturday. The Hornets travel to Montana in two weeks to take on the 3-1 Grizzlies.
Mark Billingsley is a Carmichael-based freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @editorwriter001.