Doing something that’s never been done

Associated PressSacramento State quarterback Kevin Thomson (left) throws a pass against Arizona State earlier this season. Thomson has thrown for 2,423 yards, ran for another 413, and has 31 total touchdowns for the Hornets.

Because of the position they now find themselves in, Sacramento State football players must think their new coach, Troy Taylor, is some sort of crystal gazer.

It’s thanks to one of the first things he said upon his arrival to campus at the beginning of this year.

His initial talk went a little like this: “We’re gonna do something that’s never been done before,” according to star Hornets defensive end George Obinna, a senior preseason All-American who leads the Big Sky Conference and is second in the country with 12½ sacks.

“And I truly believe this year that we have a chance to do what’s never been done,” said Obinna, the leader of a revamped, disciplined and defensive-minded Sac State team that sits a program-best sixth in the nation, second in the league, and basically is a shoo-in for a Football Championship Subdivision postseason bid.

The Hornets (7-3, 5-1 Big Sky) never have been to the FCS playoffs, and with two games to go, they’re still in contention for their first conference title.

They need a win to stay in it when they meet Idaho at 2 p.m. Saturday (SWX, Pluto TV) at the Kibbie Dome in the teams’ second meeting since 2017, a closer-than-it-looked 28-6 Vandals victory.

Coming off a two-win 2018 season — after which former coach Jody Sears, a Pullman High grad and former Washington State receiver/assistant, was fired — Sac State pulled the trigger on home-grown coach Taylor, a former fourth-round NFL draft pick at quarterback who’d coordinated Utah’s offense for two seasons prior.

Taylor helped mold Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud into a record-breaker when he was the Eagles’ quarterback coach in 2016. Gubrud now is one of the backups to Anthony Gordon at Washington State.

His Hornets boast a blend of hard-nosed play and flashiness, and minimal weak spots.

Their offense and defense are each in the top three in the league; they hardly commit penalties and they’re in the backfield defensively more than anyone — Sac State has 38 sacks, 10 more than Portland State.

“We want to be the toughest team on the field and also the smartest,” Taylor told the Sacramento Bee in October.

The Hornets land in the top three of every major defensive statistical category, and their offense isn’t too far back, especially with breakout quarterback Kevin Thomson running things.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior out of Auburn, Wash., has 2,423 yards passing, 413 rushing and 31 total touchdowns against six interceptions. He leads the league in efficiency and has looked every bit deserving of the Big Sky MVP talk that surrounded him before he suffered an injury, which kept him out last week in a wild win against Northern Arizona.

Thomson’s questionable against Idaho.

But what Taylor and his Hornets pride themselves most on is genuine camaraderie and faith in each other, said Obinna and the Bee’s Joe Davidson, who wrote “(Taylor) trusts his coaches to do their thing without the need to go Mike Ditka ballistic.”

“(Taylor’s) No. 1 emphasis was just love, love for each other, love for the team and love for this process,” Obinna said. “That’s the cornerstone, that’s the philosophy behind everything.”

Sac State’s become a favorite this year among Big Sky fans because of its shirking of a fairly consistent historical lack of success. Only one coach has finished his Hornet career with a winning record, and it was when they were Division II.

Sac State’s been a Division I member since 1996, and when it entered the FCS top 25 in mid-October, it was the first time in eight years.

“Everyone’s bought in — guys are having way more fun and just playing their games,” Obinna said. “It’s little things, the attention to detail. ... It’s the culture. It’s been a long time coming.

“We’re physical, but being physical, in our definition, means being technically sound.”

UI coach Paul Petrino has highlighted the “quick, very explosive” defensive line as the Hornets’ backbone. It features two players in the top three in Big Sky tackles for loss, with Dariyn Choates trailing Obinna by half a stop with 15 TFLs.

“They move a lot, do a lot of line games,” Petrino said. “If you had to pick one group on their defense, it’s their D-line, for sure.”

Additionally, the Hornets lead the league in pass-defense efficiency, and exhibit the conference’s No. 2 offense (468.9 yards per game), which enjoys hard-running junior Elijah Dotson at running back. He led the Big Sky with 136 yards per game in 2018.

The Hornets breezed by league foes Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington, Montana State, Montana and Cal Poly. They’ve only lost to Arizona State (12 points), Fresno State (14) and third-ranked Weber State, when Thomson went down early.

Last week, some magic kept them in the league-title race.

Down 10 points to NAU with 1:38 on the clock, backup quarterback Jake Dunniway hit receiver Isaiah Gable for a 30-yard score. Sac State recovered the ensuing onside kick, and Dunniway found Pierre Williams for an 18-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left.

Like the whole of Sac State’s season, it was some magic Obinna’s never seen before.

“It’s nuts,” he said.

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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