This sport isn’t specific to size any more, about big bruisers in a three yards and a pile-of-people ploy.
At Sacramento State, the Hornets are maximizing every bit of their roster, an emphasis for first-year coach Troy Taylor, whose philosophy is that everyone is afforded an opportunity.
Decked in slick black jerseys on a black-out theme on Saturday night, there were big guys running down hill to ice it, little ones darting here and there like jet trails, those in between directing 13-play drives and a walk-on emerging as a starter as proof of rewards.
Sac State beat FCS-ranked No. 22 Eastern Washington 48-27 in a Big Sky Conference opener at festive Hornet Stadium, where crowd sizes have increased to match the victory total.
The Hornets are 4-2 in this sudden season of promise with losses to FBS programs Arizona State 19-7 and Fresno State 34-20, schools favored on the betting lines by 37 and 24 points, respectively. Here’s a tip: don’t bet against Sac State.
The Hornets are 3-0 at home in earning their first victory over a ranked Football Championship Subdivision program (formerly I-AA) in seven seasons. And they ensured that the Eagles of Cheney took home another streak. Saturday marked Sac State’s first win over Eastern Washington at home in 13 tries, dating back to 1980, and it was the Eagles’ first loss to an FCS California program since 2005.
Grand things are happening here, a credit to Taylor whose offense stretches and gasses defenses no matter where he works – Folsom High School, Eastern Washington as a play caller or Utah of the Pac-12 as offensive coordinator in recent seasons.
He is a master of getting players into open space and then letting them create and go. His close friends are on his coaching staff, also working wonders: Kris Richardson with the offensive line (no sacks allowed Saturday) and Bobby Fresques, the one-time Sac State quarterback now working daily with third-year star Kevin Thomson.
Thomson passed for 314 yards on Saturday and three touchdowns and he ran for two. And then the senior proudly showed his various gash marks on his arms from opposing linebackers or the road-rash field turf.
Speaking of big, check out the guns on George Obinna.
The Hornets’ 6-foot-3, 250-pound senior defensive tackle has arms that should never be sleeved, limbs that would make any bouncer nod in approval. He has wheels, too.
Obinna scooped up a fumble and rumbled 66 yards for a touchdown with 2:18 remaining to seal it. Obinna had enough juice left in the tank to reach the sideline, where he was mobbed.
“That was the first time I scored a touchdown in my whole life,” Obinna said excitedly. “It felt great. Everyone was so happy for me.”
This is a giddy group. All business in action but a team that is united. And winning binds all of it together. The anguish and heart ache of an injury-plagued 2-win season in 2018 are history.
That downer season led Sac State president Robert Nelsen and athletic director Mark Orr to reach out to Taylor, who reached back. Sac State lured him in with a 7-year contract.
Taylor and his staff hit the ground running in December, learning about their players and about their conference in a rush. The theme is to be hungry and humble. The coaches have emphasized that love is the key ingredient in football, that one must care for the other for all the pieces to work together.
It’s unfolding here as Sac State delivered its best outing of the season in beating an Eagles team that went 12-3 last season, reached the FCS championship game and was the preseason pick to win the Big Sky with a No. 4 ranking.
Sac State is sure to be ranked at this pace and just missed out on Monday in the latest FCS polls after the Hornets amassed 471 yards of offense on Eastern Washington, scored two defensive touchdowns for first-year coordinator Andy Thompson, and recorded seven sacks and had seven additional quarterback hurries. Eastern Washington is 2-4, and coach Aaron Best’s postgame comments were the opposite of the joyous tune coming from Sac State.
“We’re depleted, but so what – that’s not an excuse,” Aaron Best said. “We’re not good enough in some areas. We aren’t disciplined enough in areas. We don’t make enough plays in areas, and we hold too much on offense.”
Thomson has a wealth of playmakers to use, including running back Eliajah Dotson, who ran for a season-high 102 yards. Isaiah Gable, all of 5-foot-4 and 150 pounds of muscle, had a career-best seven catches for 104 yards. Sac State has another mighty mite receiver in 5-4 Dewey Cotton.
Yeah, they’re small, but good luck cornering or tackling them.
“Heart over height,” Gable said. “That’s what we think.”
Taylor embraces that line of thinking, and he has a soft spot for walk-ons.
Parker Clayton was an honors student and Bee All-Metro do-all star at Folsom last season for a CIF State championship team.
He arrived at Sac State, promised only a chance to compete. He has, and then he wound up with a scholarship. Now a starting receiver, he caught his first collegiate touchdown on Saturday.
Taylor and company will continue to seek out walk-ons, guys big on desire and energy.
“We feel like walk-ons can be such a big thing here for us,” Taylor said. “Walk-ons are such good high school players. We want them to know that if they earn it, they will be rewarded with a scholarship. We think that’s the right thing to do. Parker came in, worked, and we could’ve waited on a scholarship but he deserved it. He’s a kid who doesn’t say much and just works really hard.
“These guys have bought into every single thing we’ve asked them to do, and they never blinked. It’s nice to see them rewarded with success on the field.”
Sac State plays at No. 6 Montana State (5-1) on Saturday and hosts ranked Montana on Oct. 19.