Football doesn’t have to be any bit of rocket science. It’s still blocking and tackling and everything fundamental with other elements blended in to make it all sing.
After No. 19 Sacramento State polished off Northern Arizona 44-0 Saturday night at Hornet Stadium, coach Troy Taylor broke it down in the simplest of terms. What’s the root of the program’s 5-2 record, 4-0 showing in the Big Sky Conference and four-game winning streak?
“We’re playing well, and we know what that formula is,” Taylor said. “Take care of the football, play great defense, run it, protect the quarterback.”
And have fun doing all of it.
The Hornets were a giddy group after becoming the first Big Sky program this season to pitch a shutout against an FCS-level program, and that’s saying something because shutouts are exceedingly rare in this sport.
Everything worked Saturday for Sac State, particularly in a sizzling first half when the Hornets stormed to a 37-0 lead behind 24 first downs, 517 yards and more than 19 minutes of possession. The defense stymied an NAU team that came in red hot, having scored 48 and 59 points in wins, but the Lumberjacks of Flagstaff hit a Hornets green wall of swarming defenders under coordinator Andy Thompson. They managed just 36 total yards, 23 plays and three first downs in a frustrating half.
For the game, Sac State piled up 31 first downs to NAU’s 11 and had 656 yards, including 246 rushing, on a gas ‘em 82 plays. Northern Arizona is 3-2 and 2-2. Sac State and Montana State are the only Big Sky unbeatens, with UC Davis and Eastern Washington in close pursuit at 4-1 each. Sac State pitched just its second Big Sky shutout since joining the conference in 1996, a glimpse of how hard it is to do that.
“It’s hard to win, period,” Taylor said. “It’s really hard (to post shutouts). Any time you get a shutout, it’s pretty amazing.”
Jake Dunniway completed his first 17 passes against Northern Arizona and went 21 of 25 overall for 328 yards and touchdown strikes to Parker Clayton for a 16-0 lead and then again to the Folsom High School graduate for a 37-0 advantage.
“Jake was fantastic,” Taylor said. “He’ll tell you he didn’t play perfect, but he was so steady, his leadership.”
Asher O’Hara, Sac State’s other gifted quarterback, had a 1-yard scoring run for a 10-0 lead, and he capped the scoring with a 43-yard touchdown to Chris Miller the first moment into the fourth quarter. The first guy to giddily greet O’Hara after that strike was Dunniway. They are pals who play the same position, support each other and strive for the same goal of winning the program’s second Big Sky banner in three years.
“That’s my guy!” Dunniway said of O’Hara, who has rushed for six scores this season as the team’s crafty QB run specialist. “I love watching him succeed. I know what he’s going through as a quarterback and vice-vesa. He’s the first to greet me, too.”
A lot of Hornets greeted Cameron Skattebo, who is easy to root for. The dynamo back who set scores of regional rushing records while at Rio Linda High School rushed for a Hornets career-high 117 yards on 10 carries, including a shifty and swift 45-yard gain. His 11-yard touchdown run pushed the Hornets ahead 30-0 with 3:30 left in the first half.
For all of Skattebo’s amazing prep feats, including 6,192 career rushing yards and 3,550 yards and 42 scores during a CIF State championship season in 2018, there were few scholarship offers for the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder. Skattebo’s fall campaign got off to a slow start with mono, missing four weeks, but he’s good to go now.
“It’s great to play football again,” Skattebo said, all grins. “Coach Taylor gave me an opportunity to play Division I football. I waited my time. I’m doing my best.”
Skattebo is another example of program depth. Sac State’s preseason All-American back Elijah Dotson left the program earlier this season for personal reasons, but the Hornets never broke stride. Not even injuries at the position have slowed progress. Marcus Fulcher left Saturday’s game in the first half with an injury that is not deemed serious. In stepped Skattebo. Next man up.
“We see things (Skattebo) does in practice, so this is no surprise,” Taylor said. “He’s a really talented guy, a tough football player, a great teammate. We have really good backs. They’re all dangerous and they can all contribute.”
Dunniway and Skattebo may sport the best full-on beards of any skill players in the Big Sky. They rib each other about it. Life is good during any winning streak. Sac State didn’t show an ounce of let down after beating then-No. 5 Montana 28-21 in Missoula last week to snap an 0-12 streak at the Grizzlies’ home turf. That’s because everyone was ready, right on down to the backup backs.
“He’s a great dude,” Dunniway said of Skattebo. “Ever since he came here, his energy has skyrocketed. You can tell he loves the game and will give his body for it. He’s focused, he loves it, he’s passionate, extremely talented and exciting to watch.”
The entire team is. Sac State plays at Northern Colorado next and hosts Cal Poly on Nov. 6 and Portland State on Nov. 13. The Hornets cap the regular season in the Causeway Classic at UC Davis on Nov. 20.