College Sports

Sacramento State, UC Davis endure football misery

Sacramento State head football coach Jody Sears
Sacramento State head football coach Jody Sears Sacramento Bee file

They may coach at rival schools, but Sacramento State’s Jody Sears and UC Davis’ Ron Gould can find a lot to commiserate about this season.

Both are winless against Division I programs, including in the Big Sky Conference.

Both have defenses playing better than expected while overcoming either youth (Sac State) or injury (UC Davis). Both have offenses that usually win the time-of-possession battle only to be stymied by costly mistakes.

UCD committed four turnovers in Saturday’s 27-13 home loss to No. 12 Montana, and Northern Colorado returned two Sac State fumbles for touchdowns to top the Hornets 27-20 without scoring an offensive touchdown at Hornet Stadium.

Sac State and UCD rank near the bottom of the Big Sky in turnover ratio, a big reason both enter Saturday’s games as heavy underdogs.

UC Davis (0-5, 0-2) has its homecoming game against Northern Arizona (3-2, 1-1), which is coming off a 49-41 upset of No. 18 Montana State in Flagstaff, Ariz. Behind running back Casey Jahn, the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week, the Lumberjacks look to move to 4-0 all-time against UCD.

Sac State (1-4, 0-2) travels to Bozeman, Mont., to face Montana State, which has won the past nine meetings against the Hornets.

The Bobcats are ranked fourth in the Football Championship Subdivision in total offense, fifth in scoring offense and fifth in pass efficiency. Junior quarterback Dakota Prukop, who accounted for eight touchdowns in last season’s 59-56 victory over the Hornets in Sacramento, leads the FCS with 425.8 total yards per game.

Both Sears and Gould agree that there is no lack of fight in their respective teams. But they think their players are trying to do too much, often resulting in key mistakes or critical penalties.

“We preach all day long about penalties and turnover margin,” said Sears, whose Hornets were penalized nine times for 93 yards against Northern Colorado. “The more you stress it, it seems the more it rears up and bites you in the rear end. But we’re not going to yield to it. We’ve got to keep pounding it, keep improving in those two areas.”

Gould says he has tried to encourage his players to relax and let the game come to them.

“We don’t need guys to be Superman,” Gould said. “I think our guys are putting a lot of pressure on themselves because they know how close we are to a victory. They’re disappointed, and they’re a little frustrated because they look at the film against the No. 12 team in the country and saw that we had them on the ropes but didn’t knock them out.”

Gould remains a fan of quarterback Ben Scott, even though he threw two drive-killing interceptions and was sacked five times against Montana.

He said Scott was trying to do too much, albeit against one of the best defenses in the FCS. Montana defensive lineman Caleb Kidder was named the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week after making seven tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a sack against the Aggies.

“We like Ben Scott,” Gould said. “But we don’t need Ben to try to be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Big Ben (Roethlisberger). We just need him to be big Ben Scott at UC Davis.”

While Scott is embedded as the Aggies’ starter, Sears still hasn’t publicly named his starting quarterback for this weekend.

Daniel Kniffin started the first four games but injured his shoulder late in the Hornets’ 28-20 loss to No. 7 Eastern Washington on Sept. 26. Kolney Cassel came in and played well against Northern Colorado. He passed for two touchdowns and 294 yards, the most in a debut start by a quarterback in Sac State history. Last year, Cassel appeared in five games for SMU and started against Texas A&M.

“Kolney has that SMU experience under his belt and has been smacked around a time or two,” Sears said. “Both are really good passers, really good students of the game, and very good competitors. It was nice to see Daniel get out there this week and swing it around himself. We’ll see where we are when he gets up there in Bozeman.”

Offensive blunders and special-teams mistakes have directly led to the Hornets allowing 56 points. But Sears also wanted to challenge a defense that has four freshmen among its top six tacklers. The defense allowed Northern Colorado only 179 yards, the fewest surrendered by Sac State in four seasons.

“As frustrating on our end as (those fumbles) may be, one of our weakest areas in terms of our defense is not being able to create any turnovers,” Sears said.

He has even implored senior linebacker Darnell Sankey to try improve the Hornets’ average of just one turnover produced per game. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Sankey is tied for the FCS lead in tackles per game (14.2) despite playing with an injured right hand. But he has yet to force a fumble or intercept a pass.

“We’ve got a really good linebacker that needs to be taking shots on the ball,” Sears said.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP