It’s go time in the Big Sky Conference football race now.
Wins will continue the ascent for Sacramento State, and a victory will do wonders for a UC Davis program mired in a three-game losing streak, placing its return trip to the FCS playoffs in a perilous position.
Sac State is 3-2 overall and 3-0 at home. The setbacks were to teams the Hornets were supposed to lose to: FBS programs Arizona State (19-7) and Fresno State (34-20).
The Hornets at No. 6 Montana State in the cold country, where game-time temperatures are projected to be in the mid 40s.
Sac State is coming off of a 48-27 win over previous No. 22 Eastern Washington, just the sixth time the Hornets have won a Big Sky opener in 24 tries. It was also the program’s first triumph of a ranked opponent in seven seasons.
A win Saturday will surely vault the Hornets into the FCS Top 25 as Montana State is 5-1 and on a five-game winning streak, the longest for the program in six years.
Coaches are masters at building up teams, but Montana State coach Jeff Choate sounded genuine in his praise of the Hornets, saying during his weekly news conference from Bozeman, “This should be a top 12, 15 team in my mind, at least. This is the best team that we’ve had come to this stadium this year for sure.”
He added, “I think this is certainly the best FCS team that we’ve played (this season). They’re a complete team. I think this is one of the better teams in the country. I really believe that, and so we’re going to have our hands full, and I’ll have our guys’ attention this week.”
Sac State was projected to be a bottom feeder by Big Sky coaches before the season. A year ago, UCD was projected to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Sky and then won 10 games and a share of the conference crown.
Sac State is that surprise team now, ranking No. 1 in the Big Sky in scoring defense/points allowed at 19.8 and leading the conference with 3.2 sacks a game (it has 16 sacks this season). The Hornets have six interceptions, one more than all of the 2018 season.
The Hornets are ranked second in scoring offense at 40.4 points a game. They have allowed no sacks in three games this season – all at home – behind starters Troy Stiefel (left tackle), Nick Bianco (left guard), Wyatt Ming (center), Thomas Parker (right guard) and Brandon Weldon (right tackle).
Montana State leads the all-time series 17-7, including a run of 10 in a row, ending in 2016.
“Every year in this league you’re going to have that (surge) team,” Choate said. “Last year, I think it was Cal Davis that came out of nowhere and just emerged as a dominant force in this league. Certainly this year you can see that’s Sacramento State.
“When you’re (five) games into a season you can pretty much look at the stat sheet and see who a team is. So they’re one of the best teams in this league without a doubt.”
The Hornets are led by one of the conference’s top players in third-year starter Kevin Thomson. He accounted for five touchdowns against Eastern Washington and has fired 16 scoring tosses, with just three interceptions.
Montana State trailed Northern Arizona 21-0 and rallied for a 49-31 victory, and the Bobcats beat Cal Poly 34-28 in overtime last week.
In an era of passing, Montana State relies on the run, averages 45.5 rushing attempts.
“I feel like we’re really building toward something,” Thomson said. “We still haven’t played our best game.”
Aggies, Mustangs and Horseshoes
UCD is eager for upward momentum as it readies for visiting Cal Poly on Saturday in the 45th meeting between the programs and 16th since the rivalry became known as the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe..
The Aggies are 2-4, falling the last month at FCS No. 1 North Dakota State 27-16, to No. 17 Montana 45-20 and last weekend 38-36 at North Dakota despite three touchdown catches from tight end Wes Preece.
Jake Maier’s 357 yards passing gave him 9,465 for his career. The only Aggies player to eclipse 10,000 career passing yards is J.T. O’Sullivan, who went for 10,745 from 1998-2001.
UCD coach Dan Hawkins told his team before last season’s playoffs the Aggies were capable of making a run to the FCS national championship game. They won 10 games and reached the second round. He told the team before this season that the Aggies were good enough to reach the finals, but another loss likely dooms all of that hope.
The Aggies lead the all-time series against Cal Poly 22-20-2, including an 8-7 showing in the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe era. A horseshoe-themed trophy that goes to the winner each season signifies the agricultural influence at Poly and UCD.
UCD trailed Cal Poly 10-0 last season before rolling 52-10. Hawkins has not lost to Cal Poly in six tries as a player (winning in 1982 as a fullback) and as an assistant coach (1983, ‘84, ‘85) and twice as head coach.
The first game of the series was in 1939. The teams have met each season since 1978. Last season was UCD’s first FCS playoff showing and 20th playoff team. Cal Poly has reached the FCS playoffs four times since 2005, the last in 2016.
This rivalry has been so close that the total points in the series slightly favors UCD, 1,095 to 1,091, with 23 of the meetings decided by 10 or fewer and 11 by three or less.
Cal Poly is 2-3 with wins over San Diego (52-34) and Southern Utah (24-21) behind its triple-option rushing attack. The Mustangs coaching staff includes quarterbacks coach Dano Graves, The Bee’s 2010 Player of the Year from Folsom High School who became a three-year starter at Cal Poly, earning team MVP and most inspirational honors after leading the team to a 7-win season in 2016 with a playoff berth.