Dominant defense leads way for Sac State football team

Hornets defense stands among the top 3 in Big Sky


Eucario Calderon

From left to right, Sac State senior football players, defensive lineman George Obinna, defensive back Caelan Barnes and defensive lineman Dariyn Choates pose for a photo after practice. Sac State’s defense has accumulated 38 sacks this season through ten games, the most in the Big Sky.

Six games into Big Sky play, the 2019 Sacramento State football team has one of the best defenses in the conference.

The unprecedented 5-1 start to conference play for the program can largely be attributed to a defensive unit that has been dominant all season long.     

First year head coach Troy Taylor and his staff have changed the culture for Sac State and the players have bought in and been committed since day one. 

The change in leadership and shift in culture has vaulted a team that finished last in the Big Sky with a conference record of 0-7 in 2018 up to tied for second in the Big Sky in 2019, even with 50 players returning.

Senior defensive linemen Dariyn Choates believes this season’s success began when the new year started.

“Back in January when this new staff came in, everybody changed,” Choates said. “All the players that stayed made a commitment to each other by saying ‘If we gone do this, we gone do it right.’ We all bought into the program this year and I feel Sacramento State’s football culture has changed. The love for the game, the passion for the game and the fun of the game is all there now.”  

Taylor has praised first-year defensive coordinator Andy Thompson for being the person primarily responsible for the defensive resurgence and the success the team has seen on that side of the ball this season.  

“That’s all Andy Thompson and his defensive staff,” Taylor said. “As coaches, we can coach our players really hard (and) if they know we really know them as players and care about them, and our players know we love them.”

Taylor and Thompson assimilated quickly into the team and built trust with the players by studying the Sac State roster they inherited and establishing impactful relationships with the players on it.

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“Coach Thompson knows us very well,” Choates said. “He knows each and every player’s ability and he knows where to put us so we can make plays on the field. I feel it’s important to have that relationship with your coach, we trust him and he trusts us and we’ve all bought into accomplishing the same goal of being our best.” 

The Hornets’ defensive success starts up front with Choates and the defensive line.  

Sac State’s defense has accumulated 38 sacks this season through ten games, the most in both the Big Sky and the entire Football Championship Subdivision. Against then-No. 21 Eastern Washington on Oct. 5, the Hornets finished the game with seven sacks, one short of the most in a single game in the Big Sky this season.

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Choates and fellow senior defensive linemen George Obinna have spearheaded a defensive line that runs rampant sacking opposing quarterbacks. Obinna ranks first in the Big Sky with 12.5 total sacks while Choates ranks third with seven.

The stout senior duo on the Hornets defensive line are also among the best in the Big Sky at blowing up offensive plays before they have a chance to develop. Obinna ranks second in the Big Sky with 15.5 tackles for loss while Choates is third with 15. 

“There’s nothing special about what I’m doing, I just really enjoy doing what I’m doing,” Obinna said of his play so far this season. “Our defense is healthy this year and we’re stronger than ever, and that’s been the biggest difference this season.” 

Thompson attributes the early success his two seniors are having largely to their coachability. As leaders, Thomson says the two have made that intangible trait become contagious throughout the team.

“When some of your most talented guys on the team are very coachable, the rest of the group sees that and they become very coachable,” Thompson said. “The great thing about those two guys is that they are very hungry and they are very humble and we want that at all levels of our program.”

Eucario Calderon
From left to right, Sac State senior football players, defensive lineman Dariyn Choates , defensive back Caelan Barnes and defensive back George Obinna line up in position after practice. In total, the Sac State defense has allowed 29 touchdowns, the third least in the Big Sky.

Choates has also delivered ball-jarring hits on multiple occasions and is tied for third in the Big Sky with three forced fumbles.  

The Hornets are the best team in the conference at stopping opposing offenses on third-down. Sac State is third in opponent third-down conversion rate at 33.5 percent. Opposing teams have had 161 attempts at converting on third down and have been successful only 54 times.  

“Our eyes get big on third-down,” Choates said. “Coach Thompson lets the dogs free and we just do our best to execute and produce.”

Opposing offenses have found little success passing the ball against Sac State this season as well. The Hornets rank first in pass efficiency defense and have given up a total of 13 touchdowns through the air, the least of all teams in the Big Sky. The Hornets’ defense has also intercepted opposing quarterbacks nine times this season, three shy of the Big Sky lead.  

Most importantly, the Hornets have the second-best scoring defense in the Big Sky, behind No. 3 Weber State University. Opposing teams are averaging 22.6 points-per-game against Sac State.  

In Sac State’s home game against then-No. 5 Montana on Oct. 19, the Hornets held the Grizzlies to just 22 points. Montana entered the game averaging 41 points per game, the most in the Big Sky, and had offensive outputs of 47, 45 and 59 during their three-game winning streak before playing Sac State.

RELATED: No. 15 Sac State football team dominates No. 5 Montana 49-22

“We did a really good job of ensuring all 11 guys on defense did their job,” Taylor said. “We played really well as a team and we played really hard. The best compliment you can have as a defense is when people say ‘Man those guys play really hard and they play really smart’ and multiple people said that afterward and it made me really proud of this defense.” 

Collectively and individually, the Hornets rank among the best in other defensive categories as well.

Prior to the road game against then-No. 6 Montana State, the Hornets were giving up just 97 yards per game on the ground. In that game, Sac State gave up 141 rushing yards to the Bobcats, causing their average per game to increase. Montana State entered that game averaging 246 rushing yards per game.

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In total, the Sac State defense has had 29 touchdowns scored against them, the third least in the Big Sky.  

The 22.6 points per game the Sac State defense is allowing this season is about 15 points less than the 37.8 points per game that the Sac State offense is averaging per game this season.

If these trends continue and Sac State’s defense, as well as its offense, continues to perform at conference-best levels, the 2019 Sac State football team could be on its way to accomplishing another unprecedented program feat: clinching its first-ever NCAA Division I FCS playoff berth.