Win or go home: Sacramento State Hornets face storied North Dakota in FCS playoff opener

In a season full of twists and turns and ups and downs, the next hurdle is the most crucial for the Sacramento State football program. It is a challenge the experience-heavy Hornets embrace and must meet or the season will end in the wide-open country of the Great Plains.

The Hornets will take on a storied program that has played the sport since Grover Cleveland was president in the 1890s, amassing 682 wins all-time. The North Dakota Fighting Hawks will host the Hornets in an NCAA Division I FCS first-round playoff game at 10 a.m. Saturday inside the 12,283-seat Alemus Center (televised on ESPN+) in a meeting of 7-4 teams.

North Dakota hails from the deep Missouri Valley Football Conference, which has six programs in the 24-team playoff field, the most of any conference in the land. The Fighting Hawks are no easy task, particularly at home. North Dakota State has won 25 of its last 27 inside the venue. It is 11-1 all-time in the playoffs in the building and 110-29 overall in the 21 years since it opened.

“It’s a great environment to play football,” said Hornets coach Andy Thompson, who was a defensive coordinator at Northern Arizona when North Dakota was a fellow Big Sky Conference member from 2013-18. “We’re excited. I know the guys have a lot of pride and have been really resilient, and they’ve earned this, and it’s going to be a fun, fun week.”

The urgency is there, but without an ounce of panic, Hornets linebacker and leading tackler Armon Bailey said, adding: “It’s now or never. It’s got to be all gas and no brakes.”

Bailey and teammates on Sunday morning watched the FCS bracket-release show on ESPN, the Hornets going from anxious to ecstatic.

“I was sweating it there a little, and then we thought: ‘Yes! Another chance to play a football game with these guys,” Bailey said.

Sacramento State joins South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Montana and Montana State as the only teams in the FCS to make the playoffs the last four seasons. That’s some crowd, and it’s the result of the best four-year run in the 69-year history of the Hornets.

Defending FCS champion South Dakota State (11-0) is the No. 1 overall seed and has been top ranked all season. No. 8-ranked North Dakota State won a remarkable nine FCS titles between 2011-2021. No. 2 Montana just won its 19th Big Sky title and is in the FCS playoffs for the 27th time. No. 5 Montana State, a 17-time Big Sky champion, reached the FCS title game in 2021 and has three NCAA national championships to its resume.

Sacramento State for the first time does not have an opening bye, which it did in 2019, 2021 and 2022 as a seeded team as the Big Sky champion. Hornets players, coaches and family members had a Thursday Thanksgiving spread at the Alumni Center, located in the shadows of Hornet Stadium. The team departs for Grand Forks on Friday morning.

“Any time you have a chance to play football in late November, yeah, you’re really thankful,” Thompson said.

Hot and cold season

The Hornets have run hot and cold the second half of the season. They started the campaign preseason ranked in the top 10 with 16 returning starters from a school-record 12-1 team. They won their first three games, none more spirited than the 30-23 effort at Stanford on Sept. 16, the most significant triumph in the history of the program.

But a week later, a last-second loss at No. 7-ranked Idaho ended a 22-game regular-season winning streak, a 19-game Big Sky Conference streak and a 15-game road streak. Sacramento State won its next two games over Northern Arizona (31-30) and Northern Colorado (21-13) to move into the FCS top 5 with a 5-1 record.

The Hornets suffered a 42-30 home loss to No. 2 Montana State on Oct. 21 , then produced a 51-16 rout of Idaho State before falling 34-7 at No. 4 Montana. Sacramento State defeated Cal Poly 41-30 on Senior Day and lost at UC Davis 31-21 in the Causeway Classic last week, putting their playoff chances on the brink. Because the committee deemed the Hornets had a more difficult schedule in going 7-4 than the Aggies did in producing the same mark, Sacramento State was awarded a bid while the Aggies were denied.

If there’s one striking number to the Hornets season, it’s not touchdowns scored, sacks allowed, lineup changes or those who missed games to injury. It’s this: 7-1. That’s Sacramento State’s record after losing a game since 2019, the start of the Hornets’ revival.

Thompson takes every loss hard as the program leader but maintains a positive outlook, per his nature. And it’s football. Teams get knocked down. It’s how one responds that matters.

“The guys know that I care a heck of a lot for them,” the coach said. “When we don’t do well, well, they hurt and I hurt for them. But you’ve got to get back up. You’ve got to get back out to practice. I always think our next practice will be our best one, and that it’ll be our best game.”

North Dakota’s regional connection

North Dakota leads the series with Sacramento State 4-2, starting with a 31-0 victory in 1979, when the Fighting Hawks were known as the Fighting Sioux (the mascot was changed in 2015). The other games have been all been played since 2012, including the Hornets winning 34-27 in 2017 and North Dakota prevailing 41-15 in 2018, the last two games in Big Sky action.

This is the first playoff meeting between the programs, though North Dakota did host UC Davis and All-American quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan in a 2001 Division II semifinal. In front of a loud crowd, UCD was called seven times for illegal procedure. Aggies players and coaches said after the 14-2 loss that the crowd noise was an issue. UCD registered a late safety. North Dakota went on to win the national championship and finished 14-1.

North Dakota moved up to the FCS D-I level in 2008 and is in the playoffs for the 20th time in program history. The Fighting Hawks lost their playoff opener last season to Big Sky member Weber State, 38-31.

North Dakota even played a bowl game in Sacramento. On Dec. 9, 1972, the Fighting Sioux beat Cal Poly 38-21 in the 12th Camellia Bowl before a crowd of 17,194 at Hughes Stadium to finish 10-1.

Players to watch

Tommy Schuster this fall has passed for 2,119 yards and 18 touchdowns for North Dakota, and Gaven Ziebarth has rushed for 604 yards and seven scores. The team averages 31.1 points and 364.1 yards per game.

The Hornets may go with two quarterbacks as they have since the Idaho State game, when coaches gave true freshman Carson Conklin a look. Opening-day starter Kaiden Bennett has had big moments and some tough ones, and he’s played through a tender shoulder on a team that has had its share of injuries, including at running back, tight end, the offensive line and on defense. But as the old saying goes, no one weeps for the mighty.

Conklin got the start at UCD and passed for 129 yards with an interception as the Aggies built a 17-0 halftime lead. Bennett started the second half and passed for 232 yards and three touchdowns, but the run game could not gain much traction, accumulating 27 yards on 20 carries.

“We still haven’t played our best game,” said Bailey, the two-time All-Big Sky linebacker. “We can do that Saturday.”