Sac State football loses home opener after offensive struggles

UNI wins 34-16 as Hornets turn the ball over six times.


Ayaana Williams

Sac State quarterback Asher O’Hara (10) looks to throw a pass during the home opener against the University of Northern Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. The Hornets lost the game 34-16 after turning the ball over six times.

Brandon Bailey

It was 6 p.m. and you could smell the smoke from the barbecue outside of Hornet Stadium as the Sacramento State men’s football team prepared for their home opener against the University of Northern Iowa. 

It was a day of remembrance and celebration as the Hornets represented the fallen in the tragedy of 9/11 with red, white and blue decals on their helmets. 

The crowd was electric and the home stands were packed to start the game as the Hornet fanbase anticipated the return of their defending Big Sky champions after two years without football. 

The UNI Panthers came into this game with intent to spoil the Hornets home opener after a close loss to No. 9 FBS ranked-opponent Iowa State in their first game of the season. 

The Panthers asserted their dominance early with two big runs on their first offensive possession by their starting running back Dom Williams. The Hornets forced a punt, but the momentum would swing back to the Panthers after an early fumble on the Hornets first drive by quarterback Asher O’hara. 

On the following possession, the Panthers would capitalize on the ground, and this time they would score on a 13-yard run toward the Hornet sideline by junior running back Vance McShane. 

The Hornets would not back down after letting up their first touchdown of the game. Sac State would fire back with two catches by junior wideout Pierre Williams on throws from quarterback Asher O’Hara that would lead to the first Hornet score by field goal from kicker Kyle Sentkowski. 

UNI continued to pound the ball with runs from Dom Williams and Vance McShane, but the momentum would swing back to the Hornets after a  critical Northern Iowa fumble inside of Sac State’s 40-yard-line on  their first drive of the second quarter. The Hornets would march down the field again, this time with back to back plays coming from senior running back Elijah Dotson and Pierre Williams. 

Dotson would begin the drive with an 11-yard pass from O’Hara, and Pierre Willams would follow up with a 15-yard catch from O’Hara to get the Hornets within Northern Iowa’s own 30 yardline. The Hornets continued to move the chains but would settle for a field goal from Sentkowski to put them within one point of the panthers lead as they trailed 6-7. 

The Panthers attempted to answer back with three minutes remaining in the second quarter, but after another strong drive led by their rushing attack, UNI kicker Matthew Cook failed to convert a 31-yard field goal attempt. 

O’Hara and the Hornets used this opportunity going into halftime, starting with a 36-yard catch by freshman wide receiver Chris Miller putting them on Northern Iowa’s 26-yard line. O’Hara would be sacked the following play by UNI’s Caden Houghtelling, which would result in the Hornets ending the half with another field goal to gain a 9-7 lead. 

Coach Taylor was happy with the way their kicker Sentkowski played but he felt that the Hornets didn’t capitalize on their opportunities early in the game. 

Similar to their previous game against Dixie State, Sac State head coach Troy Taylor decided to start the third quarter with junior quarterback Jake Dunniway. Despite the switch at halftime, the Hornets continued to struggle offensively. 

Coach Taylor said that he believes in both of his quarterbacks and will continue to play them on a week-by-week basis moving forward. 

“We maintained a lot of drives in the first half if you remember. We had the ball for quite a while, and when you put a defense on against a team like that, for that long on the field, you’re just playing with fire,” said Taylor.

Their first offensive possession in the second half resulted in a punt after a three-and-out ,followed by a touchdown by the Panthers after a blown coverage by Sac State senior cornerback Munchie Filer III, giving up a 48-yard catch to UNI wideout Isaiah Weston to put them within the Hornets five-yard line. The Panthers pounded it in on a two-yard run from running back Tyler Hoosman. 

The offensive woes continued for the Hornets after a fumble by Dunniway led to a sequence of mental mistakes by the Hornet defense. A roughing-the-passer penalty and defensive pass interference call put the Panthers within the Hornets five yard line as McShane scored his second touchdown of the game to put the Panthers up 21-9. 

The Hornets failed to get a rhythm going offensively in the second half, and the Panthers continued to keep the Hornet defense on their heels through the air as their backup quarterback Theo Day proceeded to light the Hornets up through the air, scoring two passing touchdowns in the third quarter to give them a 34-9 runaway lead going into the final quarter of the game. 

Turnovers were the turning point for the Hornets this game, and all six of them came from the  quarterback duo of O’Hara and Dunniway. Both quarterbacks failed to protect the ball this week with three interceptions and two fumbles coming from O’Hara, and another fumble by Dunniway in his second drive of the game. 

“Me, alone, I had five turnovers myself, one is already unacceptable and five is just laughable if you think you’re going to win a game like that,” O’Hara said. “I don’t think they did anything differently that changed the game, it’s just we just weren’t able to piece together a good drive.”

Sac State would attempt to fight back in the fourth quarter as their offense began to click with their only touchdown of the game coming off of a 11-yard run from Dotson. It would be too late as the Panthers defense continued to make it hard for O’Hara and the Hornets. 

O’Hara and the Hornets continued to try and show their resilience, but it was too late. O’Hara would throw his third interception of the game with only three minutes remaining as the Panthers ran off with a 34-16 victory in the Hornets home opener. 

The Hornets will be back next week against Pac-12 opponent, University of California, Berkeley, as they try to recover from their first loss of the season.  

As they try to respond with an upset win next week,  Dotson emphasized the importance of bouncing back and being resilient. 

“I think it’s really consistency amongst us, we have a big play and then we can’t convert,” Dotson said. “We just have to be more consistent as a team and there’s no finger pointing. We all got to work on what we have to work on.”

Dotson said that it was a very disappointing loss, but in order to move forward the Hornets will have to look at themselves in the mirror and do better as a unit.

Taylor promises that they will respond as they move on and prepare to travel to Cal next saturday. 

“We will respond,” Taylor said. “We will respond as coaches, we will respond as players, and we will be ready to go, I promise you, tomorrow and when we go play Cal.”