Sacramento State stayed true to form Saturday afternoon in all facets except one – the Hornets won a Big Sky Conference game.
Behind their high-powered offense, the hot hand of senior quarterback Garrett Safron, three touchdowns by De’Jon Coleman and an opportune defense, the Hornets held on for a 43-38 victory at Nottingham Field.
The Hornets improved to 1-2 in the Big Sky and 4-3 overall. UNC dropped to 1-2 and 2-4.
“In this conference, from top to bottom, you have to show up every week,” said a relieved Sac State coach Jody Sears, whose team was coming off a heartbreaking home loss to Montana State a week ago.
Safron, one of the best quarterbacks in the Football Championship Subdivision, threw for 269 yards and three touchdowns against a Northern Colorado defensive backfield that led the nation with 13 interceptions entering the game.
Nonetheless, Safron and the Hornets – they finished with 499 total yards – put on an offensive exhibition. And when called on at the most crucial time, the Sac State defense came up with a goal-line stand that kept UNC from making a comeback.
With less than 5 minutes left in the game and Sac State leading 43-30, Northern Colorado passed its way to the Sac State 6 and appeared in control with a first-and-goal.
After a 5-yard pass from Bears quarterback Sean Rubalcaba to Malcom Whye, Rubalcaba twice tried to score from the 1 but never gained an inch against the middle of the Hornets’ defensive line.
On fourth and goal, Rubalcaba pitched the ball to tailback Robert Holland, who was stopped short of the goal.
“The big thing was the heart and the resilience (of our defense),” Sears explained. “You have a handful of (play) calls down there, and it’s a sense of urgency to go and execute your job.”
The Hornets’ offense did more than its job all afternoon as Safron spread out the ball to nine receivers, including nine times to DeAndre Carter, who had 133 yards in receptions.
“Coaches got us prepared for the game, and we knew where the holes were going to be on (their) defense,” Carter said. “We tried to attack them.
“Every time we get the ball, we feel like we’re going to score. Our team has a tremendous amount of heart. We expect the best from everybody. We execute our assignments, and when we do that, it’s hard to stop us.”
UNC hardly stopped the Hornets, yielding 28 first downs and forcing them to punt just once (another punt was nullified by a roughing-the-punter penalty).
The Hornets scored on three of five possessions in the first half, then put together two touchdowns in just 1:28 in the third quarter when Safron hit Nnamdi Agude for a 25-yard touchdown pass and Coleman blocked a punt and rambled 8 yards with the ball for a touchdown.
Sac State was 5 of 10 on third-down conversions and 4 of 6 on red-zone opportunities.
The Hornets scored in every quarter, but no touchdown was bigger than the three scored by Coleman – on an 11-yard run in the second quarter, the 8-yard return of a blocked punt in the third quarter and a 2-yard run early in the fourth to cap an eight-play, 65-yard drive for a 43-30 lead.
UNC scored twice in the final two minutes, on a safety and 27-yard pass from Rubalcaba to Stephen Miller (nine catches, 142 yards), but to no avail.
Safron spent most of the afternoon picking apart UNC’s defense. He hit Jordan Robinson with a 4-yard scoring strike on the Hornets’ first possession, then found Agude for a 12-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. Also, Agude’s 25-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter gave the Hornets a 30-23 lead.
“We had a good game plan, and it was just up to me to execute,” Safron said.