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‘Pain is part of the growth process’: What Sac State must do after a humbling playoff loss

·5 min read

This one stings because they were so close. Close enough to feel it, but not close enough to savor it.

Sacramento State’s season of promise came to a frustrating end Saturday night against a powerhouse program that is used to this sort of playoff grind. South Dakota State stormed to a 24-0 lead in the first half and wound up with the ball at the end after stalling the Hornets’ late charge, running out the clock on Sac State’s season with a 24-19 victory in a second-round FCS postseason game in front of 10,031.

Sac State’s season closed at 9-3, ending an eight-game win streak. This setback will also serve as an example of what more the Hornets have to do to further elevate their program. The Hornets are on their way. There’s no doubt about that.

Remember, this is a football program that started in 1954 and competed in just its third playoff tournament, including back-to-back Big Sky Conference championships under coach Troy Taylor, the two-time conference coach of the year whose imprint has been as swift as it’s been profound. There has been a great deal more misery than joy over the decades, but the misery is gone.

Before Taylor took over, the Hornets skidded to a winless Big Sky showing in 2018. They have since gone 16-1 against Big Sky foes, but the prize of playoff victories eludes them. Sac State hosted Austin Peay in the 2019 postseason as a national No. 4 seed and did not win. The seed and result were agonizingly similar this time around. The growing pains sting.

South Dakota State looked like a program that is in the FCS playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. The Jackrabbits of the Missouri Valley Conference were better, or at least better long enough to depart California with another week to play. South Dakota State (10-3) has played a remarkable 23 games since the spring, reaching the FCS spring season championship, and yet, the Jackrabbits still look active and fresh. They rolled past UC Davis in a playoff opener, then bounced the Hornets. It’s a testament to the program coach John Stiegelmeier has built. He is in his 25th season at his alma mater. Taylor praised the Jackrabbits as, “incredible.” He also praised his group, and his emotions reflected the hurt the Hornets are going through.

“It’s when you’re that close to advancing and letting it slip away,” Taylor said of why this one hurts so much. “But that’s football. That’s the way it works. It hurts the closer you get. We’ve come a long way as a football program. It’s painful (to lose). Pain is part of the growth process.”

Stiegelmeier said Sac State will be a stalwart on the national scene, meaning a likely FCS playoff regular. He’s right. The Hornets will remain a factor in the Big Sky and FCS postseason because of Taylor, because of his staff and because the fertile recruiting grounds of Northern California. Sac State returns a wealth of talent and expects to sign perhaps the best recruiting class in program history. This ship is still sailing.

“Without a doubt, they’re outstanding,” Stiegelmeier said of Sac State. “I think they’ll keep responding.”

The affable coach added about the impact and attraction to FCS football, “It’s the ideal level of football. Kids don’t come to Sac State and South Dakota State to go to the NFL, though they have those dreams. They come to get a degree, to have a great football experience, to play in a great tournament that anyone can win.”

Sac State trailed 24-0 in the second quarter and 24-3 at the half, but not because it wasn’t prepared or confused. Taylor teams are always prepared. Sometimes, the other team makes more plays and makes more stops. Sac State made it a game but never got the ball back after Isaiah Gable took a pitch from Asher O’Hara and darted into the end zone on a sweep from a yard out to pull to within 24-19 with 2:33 to go.

Sac State couldn’t get a stop on 4th and short when the Jackrabbits were at the Hornets’ 40 with 1:24 left, and the visitors ran out the clock from there.

Jake Dunniway passed for 331 yards and a touchdown. He will return. So will O’Hara and running back Cameron Skattebo, tight end Marshel Martin and a host of others.

When Taylor coached at Folsom High School a decade ago with co-coach and current Hornets assistant head coach Kris Richardson, the losses were rare, but they served as motivators and gauge points to get better. The coaches intensified weight sessions, added plays to the playbook, and kept at it. Folsom responded by winning seven section and four state championships.

This isn’t to compare prep football with the college game, but it does show how these coaches operate. Sac State athletic director Mark Orr’s biggest concern is losing Taylor. Great coaches get tugged at by other programs, and Taylor by any measure is a great coach and leader. Other college programs have already taken notice. You can’t hide coaching stars in this sport.

Taylor just finished the third year of a seven-year contract. He doesn’t chase jobs. He isn’t to be confused with Sonny Dykes, who seemingly looked at other gigs shortly after the ink dried on previous contracts. Taylor will ride this out. He will continue to bring in top recruits that fit his style of play, who want to graduate, and who love the sport like he does. Taylor isn’t interested in high school prospects who like to be recruited and courted more than they actually like to work and play the game.

So the blueprints are there for this to become an FCS powerhouse with the right leader calling the shots. Pain is indeed part of the growth process.

“Ever since this new staff came in (in 2019), it’s been nothing but a blessing for us as young men and for the city of Sacramento,” Dunniway said. “What we’ve been able to do is a huge testament to coach Taylor and the culture he’s implemented. He does a great job making it not feel like work. It’s a pleasure going in every day and giving it our all for this guy.”

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