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The student news site of Sacramento State University

The State Hornet

The student news site of Sacramento State University

The State Hornet

Student news without fear or favor

‘All gas, no brakes’: Sac State heads into program’s first FCS playoff road game

Hornets on the road again taking on the North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Freshman+quarterback+Carson+Conklin+throws+a+pass+Saturday%2C+Nov.+18%2C+2023.+Conklin+is+the+first+true+freshman+quarterback+to+play+for+Sac+State+since+2015.
James Fife
Freshman quarterback Carson Conklin throws a pass Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. Conklin is the first true freshman quarterback to play for Sac State since 2015.

Sacramento State is in the FCS playoffs for the fourth season in a row, but this season’s playoff run will be different than anything the Hornets have dealt with before.

After the Hornets dropped the Causeway Classic, they sat at 7-4 and were selected as one of the last four teams into the playoffs. This means that the Hornets will be on the road for all of their playoff run, starting with a trip to Grand Forks, North Dakota to meet the North Dakota Fighting Hawks.

RELATED: Sac State gets shut down in must-win Causeway Classic

North Dakota, like Sac State, is also sitting at 7-4 with their signature win this season coming as a 49-24 blowout of their in-state rival North Dakota State. This matchup will be played in the Alerus Center, home of the Fighting Hawks, a place that has proved tough to win at this season.

In fact, if the Hornets were to win this game they’d be the first visiting team to win in the Alerus Center all season.

The two teams shared a common opponent this season, both facing Northern Arizona at home. Sac State won their game by one point, while North Dakota cruised to an easy 37-22 win over the Lumberjacks.

Sac State can’t afford any more slip-ups, now it’s win or go home. Here are the three keys for this matchup.

“It’s all gas, no brakes man,” senior linebacker Armon Bailey said. “The will to win outweighs everything, there’s no more guarantees after this.”

Tommy Boy

North Dakota’s offensive identity lies behind the arm of their senior quarterback Tommy Schuster. While Schuster’s stats might not jump off the page, his decision making and accuracy set him apart from the competition.

Schuster has completed over 70% of his 277 attempts, throwing only four interceptions this season. He isn’t a gunslinger, his longest pass is only 52 yards long and he’s as pure of a pocket passer as one can be in the modern age.

Despite this, the Fighting Hawks score most of their points on the ground. They run with a two-back system alternating between sophomore running back Gaven Ziebarth and junior running back Isaiah Smith.

“We are going to get them out of the run game and pass the ball around,” Bailey said. “Once we do that, we are going to have to have people in [Schuster’s] face and make sure the pressure affects him.”

Sac State head coach Andy Thompson compared the Fighting Hawks’ offense to Idaho’s, a team focused on ball control and short passes. Sac State’s defense will have to build off the performance, especially their secondary who played lights out against UC Davis.

If the Hornets can pressure Schuster and force him into working outside of structure, they’ll force mistakes. In a game of closely matched teams, one turnover could be the difference maker.

I’m seeing double, four quarterbacks

Since facing Idaho State, the Hornets have alternated playing freshman quarterback Carson Conklin and junior quarterback Kaiden Bennett. Against UC Davis, Conklin started but struggled and Bennett thrived, scoring three touchdowns late in the game.

“Talking with both of the guys and making sure we are on the same page,” senior tight end Marshel Martin IV said about working with two quarterbacks. “Not having only one guy on the same page and the other one left out. That’s the only difference.”

Thompson wouldn’t name who would start going into this game, but said the team knows and will embrace whoever plays that position. If Sac State wants to roll with the hot hand, they’ll go with Bennett.

Bennett is best operating out of structure, scrambling and finding someone downfield for big-chunk plays. Sac State can’t only rely on backyard football to save them.

They’ll have to stay ahead of the chains with quick passes to senior Carlos Hill and pounding the rock with senior running back Marcus Fulcher.

This North Dakota defense is led by two talented linebackers junior Wyatt Pedigo who leads the team in total tackles and sophomore Malachi McNeal. If Bennett can beat them with his legs, the Hornets should be able to take advantage and break off some explosive plays.

Maybe skip Turkey this year?

While everyone else will be sleeping off their Thanksgiving food comas, Sac State has an early trip to North Dakota. The game between these two kicks off at 10 a.m. PST, the earliest kickoff the Hornets have faced all season.

Thompson said the coaches have gotten the team up early to lift to better acclimate them to the kickoff time. He said they won’t be changing a ton of the routine.

“We’ll give them great meals, rest on Friday night and then get up and be excited to play a playoff football game,” Thompson said. “We are one of 24 teams that are left in the country, I think our guys will be very excited to play, doesn’t matter what time or where it is.”

Predictions:

Jack Freeman, Sports Editor (7-2): Sac State pulled a really good first-round matchup in the FCS playoffs against a team that, if they are at their best, they can beat. However, since Stanford, the Hornet squad hasn’t stepped up to win big games like this one. North Dakota’s dome proves to be too much, despite a late charge from the Hornets.

Sac State: 24, North Dakota: 30

Myla Booth, Sports Editor (7-2): Sac State made it this far and I think they are going to do everything possible to get this win against North Dakota. I think this will be a tough game and not sure what to expect, it could go almost either way.

Sac State: 23, North Dakota: 27

Chris Woodard, Managing Editor (5-4): Congratulations to the Hornets for making a playoff appearance for the fourth consecutive season. The Hornets now travel to a below-freezing Grand Forks date with the Fighting Hawks that have defended their nest with dominance. Thompson will get the team marching in the correct direction, but it will be too late in the game to overcome the initial rounds of punishment from North Dakota.

Sac State: 24, North Dakota: 31

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Jack Freeman, Managing Editor
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Jack Freeman joined The State Hornet in spring 2022 as a staff writer and is currently a junior majoring in journalism. He returns as a Managing editor, resident Indoor football aficionado, and Kellen Moore fan.
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