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Eastern Washington football ready for resurgent, familiar Sacramento State

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 4, 2019, 5:58 p.m.

Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor watches the clock during the first half of the team’s game against Arizona State, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (Matt York / AP)
Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor watches the clock during the first half of the team’s game against Arizona State, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (Matt York / AP)

As Eastern Washington linebacker Jack Sendelbach scanned film of Sacramento State, he swiftly pieced together the similarities.

The Hornets (2-2, 0-0 Big Sky), who host the 22nd-ranked Eagles (2-3, 1-0) Saturday, featured a pass-first, dual-threat quarterback in Kevin Thomson, capable of chipping his way upfield and launching the home-run ball.

The Auburn, Washington, product paces an offense that ranks 17th in the country in total yardage (462 yards per game). He ranks eighth in individual yards, at 324 per game.

Lined up beside Thomson in the spread, single-back offense is running All-Big Sky running back back Elijah Dotson, who ranks first on the team in receiving (326 yards, two touchdowns) and is third in rushing (96 yards, two touchdowns).

“A lot of it is kind of of déjà vu,” Sendelbach said. “I see a lot of what Gage (Gubrud) and Antoine (Custer) were doing in 2016. They have a great quarterback and great running back.”

That’s because former short-time Eastern Washington offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Troy Taylor has taken over his hometown Sacramento State l program.

“He’s a great offensive mind,” said EWU head coach Aaron Best, formerly an assistant alongside Taylor under former head coach Beau Baldwin. “He lets his players play.”

Taylor spent 11 months at EWU in 2016, helping the Eagles’ thrilling, big-play offense lead the nation in passing yards (401 per game).

“It was a lot of fun,” said Taylor, who lived on the South Hill in Spokane and commuted to Cheney during his career stop. “Beau was a great offensive mind and leader.”

Baldwin took his offensive mind to California after the Eagles reached the FCS semifinals that season. He’s , currently the Golden Bears’ offensive coordinator.

Taylor also went to the Pac-12 in 2016 after being hired at Utah, where he was the offensive coordinator for two seasons before he was hired for his first collegiate head coaching job at Sacramento State, a program that historically has had more struggles than successes.

Year one of the Taylor regime is leaning toward the latter, and much of it has to do with featuring a defense that leads the Big Sky in points allowed (18 points per game).

The Hornets posted a rare shutout of Northern Colorado (50-0), rolled past NAIA Southern Oregon 77-19 and gave Football Bowl Subdivision foes Arizona State and Fresno State plenty of fits.

Arizona State, ranked No. 20 in the most recent Associated Press poll, scored just a single touchdown in its 19-7 win on Sept. 6. Fresno State, one of the better programs in the Mountain West Conference, was tied with the Hornets with less than 7 minutes left before pulling away for a 34-30 win two weeks ago.

All-Big Sky defensive end George Obinna has boosted Sacramento State, which hasn’t beaten EWU since 2008.

Obinna, a preseason FCS All-American in 2018 before a season-ending injury, had eight tackles and 2 1/2 sacks against Fresno State. He has 23 career sacks, six shy of the school record.

The Hornets’ secondary is coached by Cherokee Valeria, who left EWU last winter after eight seasons as the Eagles’ cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator.

Former Northern Arizona defensive coordinator and Walla Walla native Andy Thompson was also one of the Taylor’s first hires.

“They’re a physical team,” Eagles receiver Dre’ Sonte Dorton said. “They (played the FBS schools) pretty tough, but I feel with the guys we’ve got, we’ll be fine going against them. It’s going to be a tough opponent, but we’ll find a way.”

Unranked and looking to start its Big Sky slate on the right foot in a conference littered with potential FCS playoff teams, the Hornets are in a need of a résumé-building win.

After a slow start and a pair of FCS losses in nonconference games, EWU is essentially taking a playoff-game approach for its remaining schedule, knowing that at least a share of the Big Sky title would be the only guarantee to reach the postseason.

The once-struggling defense came alive in a 35-20 win over North Dakota last week, forcing six turnovers and allowing its lowest point total of the season.

Custer, one of Taylor’s key players three years ago in Cheney, now leads the Big Sky in rushing, complementing quarterback Eric Barriere, a Walter Payton Award candidate.

Barriere ranks sixth in the country in passing yards (1,485 yards and 13 touchdowns), for the Eagles, who rank 14th in total offense (469 ypg).

History

EWU leads the all-time series against Sacramento State 19-4. The Eagles handled the Hornets 52-31 in 2017 at Roos Field in their previous meeting.

Sacramento State was then coached by former EWU defensive coordinator Jody Sears, who had two winning seasons in five seasons before he was fired after the 2018 season.

California success

The Eagles haven’t lost a game in the Golden State since 2005, when they dropped a 40-35 decision to a ranked Cal Poly team in San Luis Opispo.

Injury update

The return of nose tackle Keith Moore was a major boost last week for EWU’s defense, which missed him the first four games of this season due to injury.

The return of Sendelbach was also a boost. The team captain missed EWU’s 35-27 loss to Idaho with a hand injury, but wore a club-like cast and returned for a team-high 12 tackles in last week’s win over North Dakota.

Washington transfer and buck linebacker Jusstis Warren returned to live action in practice earlier this week after missing the past four games with an injury. Standout linebacker Chris Ojoh is sidelined with an ankle injury and may miss his third straight game.

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