Underdogs to champions: A recap of the Sac State football team’s regular season

9-3 season leads to the Hornets first Big Sky Championship and FCS playoff appearance


Shaun Holkko

Sac State junior quarterback Kevin Thomson stands in the pocket amid pressure from UC Davis against the Aggies on Saturday, Nov. 23 at Hornet Stadium. The No. 4 Hornets host the second round of the FCS Playoffs at 6 p.m. next Saturday, Dec. 7 at Hornet Stadium.

One season was all it took for the Sacramento State football team to taste success and a playoff berth under the guidance of new head coach Troy Taylor.

The Hornets entered this season with the goal of turning around the program after finishing with a 2-8 record in 2018 and firing head coach Jody Sears after five years with the program.

After a short search, Sac State hired Taylor, who was serving as the offensive coordinator at the University of Utah, to be the new head coach. Taylor immediately focused on changing the style and tempo of the team.

Senior defensive linemen Dariyn Choates said that he originally wasn’t sure he would be staying with the team through a coaching change.

“It was hard for me, this is my senior year,” Choates said. “From my junior season, that other team got wiped out. I was kind of in a position like, (should I) give these coaches a chance or leave and go somewhere else? But Sacramento State had a place in my heart, so I’m staying.”

RELATED: Sac State football team begins new era under head coach Troy Taylor

Little faith was shown outside the program as Sac State was projected to be the third-worst team in the Big Sky in a preseason coaches poll. A media poll ranked them as the second-worst team.

A 77-19 win over Southern Oregon in the season opener set the tone for the year to come. The team showed itself to be dominant on both sides of the ball,  with the Hornets offense even setting a record for most points scored a single game in program history.

The team suffered two losses in its next three games, coming up short against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents Arizona State and Fresno State on the road despite valiant defensive performances in the first three quarters of both games. A 50-0 clubbing of Northern Colorado at home in between helped to keep spirits high.

Three consecutive wins over ranked Big Sky teams Eastern Washington, Montana State and the University of Montana propelled the Hornets up the Football Championship Subdivision rankings and put the team in contention for its first Big Sky title in program history.

However, a 36-17 loss at home to No. 3 Weber State put a small dent in those dreams as the Wildcats took control of the conference. To make matters worse, starting junior quarterback Kevin Thomson left the game injured and was sidelined for a week.

RELATED: No. 6 Sac State football team shut down by No. 3 Weber State in 36-17 loss

With Thomson out, the team rolled with sophomore Jake Dunniway at quarterback for the game against Northern Arizona, a game that was a little too close for comfort. After being up 14-0 in the first quarter, the Hornets found themselves down by 10 with under two minutes to go. However, two quick touchdown strikes from Dunniway and a crucial onside kick recovery from Pierre Williams saved the day and possibly their season.

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A return to form against Idaho saw Sac State win 31-7 and establish themselves as a playoff-caliber team. Combined with Weber State’s loss to Montana that same week, it meant that the Hornets would win a share of the Big Sky if they beat UC Davis.

The Aggies overwhelmed Sac State early on, getting out to a 17-3 lead in the second quarter. Another come from behind performance saw the Hornets score 24 unanswered points to beat UC Davis to win both the 66th Causeway Classic and a share of the Big Sky Championship.

RELATED: No. 4 Sac State football team overcomes slow start to beat UC Davis

Thomson said that it was nice to finally be able to taste some success after being on teams that have struggled in the past.

“A lot of my football career going back to high school, I had to go through a lot of losing seasons and now I’ve got a little bit of a small taste of success,” Thomson said. “Just being able to be in this position, it’s something that I can just savor.”

Taylor said the team believed from the start that this was possible.

“There’s a lot of happy guys,” Taylor said about winning a share of the Big Sky. “(I’m) really happy for the 16 seniors that have been through a lot and found a way to kind of pull it together and become champions. We believed right from the beginning and it’s been a heck of a ride.”

Improvements were visible across the board in many statistical categories. The team put up 12.2 more points per game than last year and held opposing offenses to 345.1 yards per game compared to 489 yards in 2018.

As a result of the season, the awards came rolling in for Sac State. A total of 13 players made all-conference teams, with two others being given honorable mentions. Thomson, who threw for over 2900 yards and 25 touchdowns, was named Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. Taylor was named Big Sky Coach of the Year.

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The Hornets are currently on a bye week after being seeded No. 4 in the FCS playoff bracket, the school’s first appearance in the tournament. They will host the winner of Saturday’s game between Austin Peay and Furman.

The game will be played at Hornet Stadium on Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. and will be nationally broadcast on ESPN3.