Joe Davidson

Sacramento State football rolls on in historic turnaround: ‘It’s been a blast’

Troy Taylor sees fourth down as an opportunity, not doom and despair.

He checks the roster and finds more opportunity within the face masks and shoulder pads of eager souls, regardless of shape, size, age or skill set.

He trusts his coaches to do their thing without the need to go Mike Ditka ballistic.

This is who you want as your coach, particularly if reboot and rebuild is involved.

In his first year heading the Sacramento State football fortunes, Taylor has captured the attention of his team and his hometown. And his best message was reinforced earlier in the week. Taylor addressed his group after a practice and reminded that making the right decisions develops good habits, right on down to getting ankles taped. And when he asked the group why they are here, they answered in unison, “To graduate!”

Taylor didn’t dwell or harp. His message and reminder was succinct and genuine, and he held a captive audience. Taylor’s game-day theme is just as refreshing and strong: compete, conquer, enjoy – and to fear nothing.

Now ranked an all-time program best No. 7 in the Football Championship Subdivision, Sac State on Saturday night dropped the hammer on No. 5 Montana, winning 49-22 in a Big Sky Conference game that had 15,140 in attendance as the bandwagon is picking up steam at Hornet Stadium.

Good thing, too. Hornet Stadium can squeeze in 20,000 or so, so tell a friend. Fans wanted a winner here, an entertaining product and a coach to latch their hopes onto. They got it.

They can thank Sacramento State president Robert S. Nelsen, who, along with athletic director Mark Orr, chased down Taylor like agitated linebackers to lead this program after the Hornets went 2-8 last season.

Nelsen was so into the festivities Saturday that he fired footballs into the stands at the half when Sac State was up 35-15. His throwing form was a bit flawed, but not his spirit.

Old voices, new hope

Amid the giddy on Saturday was John Volek.

The man who coached Sac State to its last conference championship, in 1995, was the Hornets’ honorary captain. Volek spoke to the team Friday night and was part of the coin toss before kickoff. He said the highlight of the weekend was getting a post-speech hug from Taylor. He was also the interim athletic director who helped Nelsen bring in Orr.

“Troy’s laying the framework, the foundation to something special here,” Volek said. “I love what I see. We all do. This was our dream. It’s just amazing to see.”

Sac State scored more points and piled up more yards on Montana than Oregon did, and the Hornets prevented the Grizzlies from winning their 600th game in program history. Montana came in having gone 20-1 against the Hornets since the programs started playing each other in 1993.

What’s working

Sac State is 5-2 overall and 3-0 in the Big Sky. It is 4-0 at home. The Hornets can pass it with the gritty Kevin Thomson (369 yards, four touchdown passes against Montana), run it and catch it with equal parts fury and flair.

Parker Clayton has gone from walk-on receiver from nearby Folsom High School to scholarship player, to starter to highlight maker, including a spectacular one-handed grab in the first half.

Elijah Dotson has gone from 1,000-yard rusher in 2018 to exceptional receiver with soft hands and fast feet. He was on the receiving end of the game’s most critical play. On fourth-and-6, Taylor ordered up a Thomson special, and the third-year starter dropped in a nice touch pass that Dotson took 39 yards into the end zone with 14 seconds left in the third quarter for a four-touchdown lead.

Fear, anxiety or weakness? Not here.

“We just not going to base anything on fear,” Taylor said. “We just aren’t. We don’t coach our guys like that and we don’t want them to play like that. We’ve got four downs for a reason and we really believe in our guys, that they’ll execute and make plays and make things happen.”

Taylor added, “It’s a great win, tons of people, great energy. This is what I envisioned when I took the job, to have the community and Sacramento really proud of the team we have. This is an incredible group of young men that we have.”

Sac State is prolific and fun. It is defensive minded and disciplined, unleashing players into opposing backfields under first-year defensive coordinator Andy Thompson. The Hornets recorded six sacks and eight tackles for loss against Montana. The Hornets committed two penalties in beating then-No. 5 Montana State on the road last week and had just one Saturday.

“We want to be the toughest team in the field and also the smartest,” Taylor said. “You have to be a smart team if you want to win championships.”

That’s three successive weeks of beating a nationally ranked team, another first for Sac State. If Saturday wasn’t the biggest regular-season victory in program history, then it certainly ranks right up there with triumphs over Oregon State and Colorado early this decade, but neither of those Hornets teams managed to use that short-lived momentum to reach the postseason.

That hasn’t happened since 1988, when the Hornets were in Division II.

Attention-grabbers

Sac State has caught the attention of this region and that of the Big Sky.

“They beat us on offense and they beat us on defense,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “They won both halves of it. When you’re playing a good team like that at their place, I mean, you saw the post-game celebration, this is the Super Bowl here, and we didn’t play well enough to be in it.”

Sac State plays at Cal Poly on Saturday and then hosts No. 4 Weber State on Nov. 2 in what was deemed before the season the Big Sky’s most daunting schedule. Sac State’s losses were to Football Bowl Subdivision schools Arizona State 19-7 and Fresno State 34-20.

“When people looked at this schedule, they probably imagined something a lot different than what’s happened, because it was pretty front heavy with some great teams,” Taylor said. “These guys didn’t blink. It’s been a blast.”

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Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.
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