Slingin’ in the rain: Sacramento State airs it out vs. Richmond for first FCS playoff win

Funny thing about rain games. The winners don’t seem to notice. Let it drizzle, let it pour. Same for the fans.

Sacramento State on Saturday afternoon soaked in the inclement weather. All the pelting droplets seemed to wash away any lingering grime of recent playoff shortcomings and a lackluster first half against a team that flew nearly 2,800 miles just to crash this party.

The No. 2-seeded Hornets rallied to beat the Richmond Spiders of Virginia 38-31 in a second-round FCS playoff game at Hornet Stadium to move to 12-0. The collective sigh of relief could be heard through the complex for those toweling off a good hour after it was over.

A crowd of 9,136 braved the rain, an inspired showing considering the traffic chaos on the roads just to get here. Had the Hornets lost this one, the storm clouds would have remained. There would be no smiles, no joy and no father-daughter school dances for assistant coaches such as quarterbacks coach Bobby Fresques, who quickly ditched his headset and play sheet for a nice shirt and tie.

Now, it’s clear skies on the horizon as Sacramento State prepares to host the 11-1 Incarnate Word Cardinals of San Antonio at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Hornets will continue to host as long as they win, right up through the semifinals.

“There was a stretch there in the second half where we were really struggling with the elements,” said Hornets coach Troy Taylor, whose staff enjoyed its first playoff triumph after agonizingly tough postseason losses in 2019 and 2021 as the No. 4 seed. “We had a ton of drops and that could’ve cost us the game, but we ended up rallying and finding a way to make it happen.”

Added Taylor of the frustrating first half, “I wasn’t happy. We weren’t playing very well. We really struggled on defense early, but we hung in there.”

Sacramento State set single-season rushing marks this fall, headed by Big Sky Conference rushing champion Cameron Skattebo, but the Hornets managed just 72 yards on 35 attempts, a credit to the Spiders’ defense. In a sport that doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense, the Hornets shook off the lack of a run game and promptly passed for a season-high 400 yards despite the pounding rain.

Fifty-one of those yards came off the arm of Asher O’Hara to All-American receiver Pierre Williams for a perfect, in-stride play with 6:28 left to play. It was a play the Hornets needed to get where Richmond has gone before — multiple FCS semifinals rounds and a championship season in 2008 — and it was a play that proved to be the game winner.

Sacramento State Hornets wide receiver Pierre Williams (84) pulls in a 51-yard pass for the winning score, as Richmond Spiders defensive back Aamir Hall (16) follows at left, during the fourth quarter of a wet NCAA FCS college football playoff game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento.
Sacramento State Hornets wide receiver Pierre Williams (84) pulls in a 51-yard pass for the winning score, as Richmond Spiders defensive back Aamir Hall (16) follows at left, during the fourth quarter of a wet NCAA FCS college football playoff game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento.

“That throw was about as beautiful as it gets,” Taylor said.

Said the humble O’Hara, “It was a great call by Coach Taylor and a great play by Pierre.”

The defense held from there with Cameron Broussard ending Richmond’s upset hopes with an interception at his team’s 36 with 1:19 to play. The Hornets celebrated their first playoff win since the 1988 team that reached the Division II national semifinals. Sacramento State has been in the Division I ranks since 1994 and had not made the FCS playoffs until Taylor and company came aboard before the 2019 season.

The Hornets have been resilient this historically great season, including rallying from 17 down to top Montana in a Big Sky Conference game on Oct. 22 at Hornet Stadium, leading to a flood of Hornets fans spilling onto the field for the national ESPNU audience. No one poured onto the field after this one. Fans practically rowed to the parking lot.

“It’s big,” Taylor said of the significance of a win that his program had to have. “I mean, going into the season, our guys had bigger aspirations than just making the playoffs. We had made the playoffs, but we wanted to make a run, and it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to get in the playoffs. It’s hard to get to the third round, and our guys have done that. It’s a big deal.”

The game turned at the end of the first half and the start of the second.

Richmond coaches and players fumed that an apparent 74-yard fumble return was ruled an incomplete pass for the Hornets. That came late in the half, a play that would have put the Spiders up 28-10. After a lengthy review, the referee said the pass was incomplete. A moment later, Marcus Fulcher scored on a 1-yard run to pull the Hornets to within 21-17, and then Elijah Tau-Tolliver returned the second-half kickoff 95 yards, breaking tackles and weaving to avoid others, for a sudden 24-21 Hornets lead.

“Huge,” Richmond coach Russ Huesman said. “That was an unbelievable swing. It could’ve been a 28-10 game. I was shocked they overturned that. The second-half kickoff touchdown was a killer. Give the guy credit. He broke tackles.”

Huesman praised his team for their grit. He said of the Hornets, “I’ll be rooting for Sac State the rest of the way. That’s a heck of a football team. They’re undefeated for a reason. They play hard. (O’Hara) is a great player and (Jake Dunniway) killed us with the pass.”

The victory was especially sweet for Marshel Martin. The team’s fastest player and perhaps the best tight end in program history, Martin had two touchdown catches, a 5-yard flip pass from O’Hara for a 7-0 lead and a 19-yarder from Dunniway to tie the game a minute into the fourth quarter. Dunniway passed for 317 yards, and despite three interceptions, his teammates never lost faith in him. O’Hara spoke about that team bond afterward.

“Me and Jake talk a lot about positivity,” O’Hara said. “We talk about the next drive. The insight Jake and I give each other is great.”

And that rain? The Hornets used 12 different footballs. Huesman joked the team that threw fewer ducks would prevail.

“I love the rain,” O’Hara said with a grin. “I’ve played in a lot of rain games in my life. It’s a long game and we stayed with it. It worked out. We won.”