Sacramento State football coach Jody Sears had expressed concern about his young Hornets’ inconsistency during fall workouts.
But the Hornets did a couple of things consistently well on Saturday in the season opening 41-20 win against Eastern Oregon in front of an announced crowd of 11,735 at Hornet Stadium: Sac State scored touchdowns in bunches and hammered the Mountaineers’ overwhelmed offense until the fourth quarter when mostly the Hornets’ reserves were on the field.
Sophomore quarterback Daniel Kniffin (Rocklin High School), making his starting debut, completed 22 of 34 for 282 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for a one-yard score before sitting down for the night at the end of the third quarter.
Mighty mite Isiah Hennie, the Hornets’ 5-foot-7 and 150 sophomore speedster, caught a 21-yard touchdown pass and returned a punt 67 yards for a score; junior running back Jordan Robinson rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass; and senior placekicker Brad Cornish booted field goals of 29 and 44 yards.
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Sac State scored on seven consecutive series ‑ five touchdowns and two field goals ‑- from late in the first quarter through late in the third quarter.
The streak started after Sac State got pinned on its two-yard line with seven minutes to play in the first quarter after a well-placed 47-yard punt by Eastern Oregon’s Nathan Harden.
Kniffin and the Hornets moved 98 yards in 10 plays capped by Robinson’s 10-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Kniffin completed four of seven passes for 84 yards, including a 49-yarder to senior Shane Harrison on a pass in the flat after Kniffin read blitz. Harrison, who sat out last season, had a game-high eight catches for 125 yards.
“It was fun,” Kniffin said of his first start. “It was real fun with the guys I’ve got around me… But there was still a lot of stuff we missed. We weren’t hitting on all cylinders. But that just shows how explosive our offense can be.”
Defensively, the Hornets stymied the NAIA visitors, which scored twice from scrimmage in the final 3:14. Eastern Oregon’s first score came on Jace Billingsley’s 100-yard third quarter kickoff return.
Football Championship Subdivision Defensive Player of the Year candidate Darnell Sankey, a senior linebacker, had 12 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup and redshirt freshman defensive back Joey Banks from Franklin High School had 11 tackles – 3.5 for losses -- and a sack in his first career start. True freshman safety Manny Scott-Anderson (Elk Grove) had seven tackles.
Banks and Anderson were two of 28 sophomore and freshmen listed on the Hornets’ 44-man two-deep chart and all but a handful saw action. Several other underclassmen not on the two deep also played.
“They have to (play),” Sears said, smiling. “We don’t have anyone else. So we are going to have to force-feed them….They are going to have to step up.”
The Hornets held Southern Oregon to 76 total yards, including one net yard rushing, in the first half and the Mountaineers got most of their 244 total yards in the final quarter.
Sears said the team made some progress toward improving it’s consistency – but not for an entire game.
“Our first group, they were fairly sharp,” Sears said. “It’s going to get harder…some pressure is coming…We’ve just got to keep growing, we’ve got to keep getting better. Tonight was OK, but we didn’t finish like we needed to finish like we talked at halftime….There was the inconsistency thing.”
Sankey agreed and noted that the Hornets failed to create any turnovers. Southern Oregon recovered two Sac State fumbles.
“The first half we dominated, but that has to lead on to the second half as well,” Sankey said. “We let them score 14 points (from scrimmage). That’s unacceptable…We need to create more turnovers. We definitely have to come back Monday and be ready to work for UDub.”
Sac State plays at Washington Saturday, a team that features former Folsom High quarterback Jake Browning. He used to train with Kniffin at quarterback guru Troy Taylor’s passing academy.
“That’s pretty cool,” Kniffin said. “I’m excited for him and I’m excited for the opportunity to play a big school. We are going to go out there and have a good offensive game plan.”
Sears said getting to play Washington will be a great opportunity for the players and the school, which has history against the Pac-12. Sac State has upset Oregon State and Colorado in recent years.
“It’s absolutely awesome,” Sears said. “The biggest stage in college football. ….It’s going to be an absolute joy to go up with your kids and go tee it up and see what happens.”