College Sports

Sacramento State utility player Nolan Merker makes starting QB bid

Nolan Merker has tried to make himself useful since the walk-on quarterback arrived at Sacramento State in 2014.

The former Sheldon High standout is the team’s primary punter (a 38.1 average in 42 kicks) and holds on PATs and field-goal attempts. The redshirt sophomore may add starting quarterback to his college résumé on Saturday, when Sac State (1-6, 1-3 Big Sky Conference) plays at Northern Colorado (3-3, 1-2).

Merker has been battling erratic sophomore Nathan Ketteringham in practice this week in a bid to make his first start. He relieved the Ketteringham last Saturday in the Hornets’ 68-7 loss at No. 10 Montana, the second-largest margin of defeat in Hornets history.

Ketteringham was held to 60 passing yards, completing just five of 18 passes, before Merker entered with a little more than nine minutes remaining in the third quarter. He led the Hornets on a 10-play, 70-yard drive that included a 40-yard pass to Johnnie Rucker before stalling on the Montana 1. The left-hander finished 3 of 8 for 98 yards and had an interception returned 78 yards for a touchdown.

“Nolan came in and gave us quality minutes,” said Sac State coach Jody Sears after practice Wednesday. “I know there is one ball he’d like to have back. But right after that throw he came to the sidelines and said, ‘Sorry coach. I saw (the defender), but I thought I could squeeze it in there.’ He owned up. So right now (who starts Saturday) will probably be a game-time decision. But I like their attitude, the way they have come back to work, the way they have bounced back.”

While the 6-foot-3 Ketteringham is taller and more athletic, the 5-10 Merker has a knack for reading defenses.

Merker, who passed for 2,734 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior at Sheldon, redshirted at Sac State in 2014. He broke his ankle in the season opener last season on a quarterback scramble against Eastern Oregon and missed the remainder of the year after having surgery.

Sac State’s offense enters Saturday’s game ranked last among Big Sky teams in scoring at 18.4 points per game. The good news for the Hornets is that Northern Colorado is last in total defense, allowing 512 yards per game.

Sac State has a 9-1 record all-time against Northern Colorado, including a 4-0 record in Greeley, Colo. But the Bears won last year’s meeting 27-21 at Hornet Stadium on the strength of a kickoff return for a touchdown and two fumble returns for touchdowns.

Horseshoe at stake – The obvious storyline for Saturday’s Battle for the Golden Horseshoe rivalry game between UC Davis and No. 17 Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo is the Aggies’ improving defense against the Mustangs’ nationally ranked triple-option offense, led by former Folsom High quarterback Dano Graves.

Cal Poly (4-2, 2-1) enters the Big Sky game ranked No. 2 nationally in rushing yards per game (352.5) and No. 5 in total offense (506.7). UCD (2-5, 1-3) is coming off two games in which it has held opponents to an average of 264.5 yards, including 90 rushing yards per game.

The X factor could be the Aggies’ offense. If UCD can keep Cal Poly’s defense on the field for long stretches with its balanced pass-run attack, it could help neutralize some of Cal Poly’s offensive potency.

One guy who is concerned about the Aggies’ offensive “multiplicity” is Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh

“It’s not just the run vs. the pass,” Walsh said. “The reality of the situation is the formations they run, and the people they have running those formations. They’re very talented at wide receiver and, obviously, at running back. Their quarterback (Ben Scott) is one heck of a player. When he is healthy, you can see who they strive to be as an offensive football team.”

Add to it the spice of it being a rivalry game and anything is possible.

UCD, which leads the series 20-19-2, has won six of the past nine games at Cal Poly, including the most recent meeting in 2014.

Last year in Davis, Cal Poly accumulated 669 total yards in belting the Aggies 55-38.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP