Sacramento State Football Defensive Preview

Remember when I was really confident Cal's offense was going to run through Nevada's defense? Well, I promise I won't jinx Cal this time.

You know, I wasn’t sure if I should write my usual two preview articles per team this week, or if I should have rolled the offensive and defensive previews into a single article this week—after all, I only had two games worth of content. I figured this defensive article would be a bit thin, because how much can you really learn about a defense in two games? Well, not a whole lot, but it turns out my articles are always pretty long, so I figured I could stretch this baby into a whole new article.

Cal struggled against a bad Nevada defense and busted open a good TCU defense. So what can we expect from Sacramento State?

Well, like Nevada and TCU, Sacramento State also runs a 4-2-5 defense. Like TCU, Sacramento State will try to find creative ways to bring pressure on the QB. In 2019, Sacramento State had an elite FCS defense, but they’ve lost most of their starters since then: first team all-conference defensive linemen Dariyn Choates and George Obina have graduated, first team all-conference cornerback Daron Bland transferred to Fresno State, and second team all-conference linebacker Marcus Bruce and cornerback Caelan Barnes have also graduated. In fact, their defense only returns three defensive players with at least a season’s worth of starts: defensive ends Josiah Erickson and Wyatt Hjelm, and linebacker Marcus Hawkins. Thus, it’s hard for me to say a whole lot about this defense with just two games under my belt, so I’m going to spend this article just focusing on the couple players that did stand out to me on tape.

Defensive Line

It should go without saying, but most FCS football players were overlooked by FBS programs for one reason or another: size, speed, being a late bloomer, etc. So if we’re talking about the defensive line, we’re most likely talking about undersized defensive linemen. Well, how does an undersized defensive lineman get pressure on a quarterback when faced with a Power-5 offensive line? By taking advantage of the difference in speed. Cal’s average starting offensive lineman weighs 305 lbs. They will have their lateral quickness tested by Sacramento State’s best defensive end, the 6’2” 228 lbs. Josiah Erickson (for comparison’s sake, Cal’s RB Christopher Brooks is 6’1” and 235 lbs.).

So how does Erickson get to the QB? With speed, obviously. Erickson has a very quick first step and an ability to shimmy past slower offensive linemen:

Here he bounces off two blockers to find himself in the backfield for a TFL on the running back:

Erickson doesn’t look too much like a defensive end, but he was definitely an impact player in their first two games. Erickson was also a key player in the 2019 matchup against ASU as he successfully set the edge and helped keep QB Jayden Daniels contained all game.

Linebacker

I don’t even need to check the stats to tell you that linebacker Marcus Hawkins is their leading tackler (I actually couldn’t even find defensive stats for Sacramento State, but that’s neither here nor there). Hawkins is all over the field, and clearly the anchor of this defense. He’s got good instincts, and more often than not you can just follow where he is on the field (#5) to see where the play is going. He was a sure tackler, he forced fumbles, and he even had good ball instincts in pass coverage.

Here Hawkins clubs the ball out for a fumble:

LB Marcus Hawkins forces a fumble on the tackle. The refs blew the play dead, but after replay review, confirmed that this was a fumble recovered by Sacramento State.

Marcus Hawkins is also the only Sacramento State player to log an interception this year:

And here he tosses aside the running back trying to block him like a small child who just asked him “are we there yet?” for the 200th time:

Secondary


Sacramento State’s best cover corner (in my view) is CB Prince Washington, a transfer from Wyoming. I don’t really have any highlights of him, but I also didn’t see him targeted much, nor did I see him make any mistakes in coverage. He was usually stuck at the hip to the receiver he was covering.

On the other end of the field is CB Munchie Filer III, a transfer from Montana State. Although not as consistently glued to his assignment as Washington, I did see him make a nice play on the ball a couple times when he was picked on:

In the above clip at the top of the screen, you may see Prince Washington’s backup, CB Dominick Sanders, getting torched. Often times when a quarterback recognizes pre-snap that they have single-man coverage to the outside, they’ve already decided they are going to throw a jump ball/back shoulder fade to their preferred receiver. However, I am pretty sure the receiver at the top of the screen was Northern Iowa’s leading receiver in 2019, and so I am not sure why the Northern Iowa QB decided he’d target the other starting corner instead of the backup corner on his top receiver. But this isn’t really an article about Northern Iowa, so I’ll let that one slide.

Another impactful player for Sacramento State is the nickelback, Marte Mapu. Look at this Photo-GIF:

It’s hard to tell from this clip, but he read the quarterback’s eyes and makes a nice play on the ball. These FCS games often show some wonky camera angles so I couldn’t always tell what the secondary was doing, but he generally seemed to be a disruptor that would always find himself near the play.

I can’t say too much about the safeties, since I only noticed them when something went wrong:

In general, I saw a lot more mistakes in these FCS matchups than I was used to seeing. This is probably some sort of selection bias, since the Pac-12 typically schedules the better (playoff-caliber) FCS teams, and good FBS teams (and mediocre FBS teams) don’t make mistakes nearly as often. I don’t know which version of the Cal offense we will see on Saturday, but if they want to take shots down the field, they will be there.

Conclusion

While most Pac-12 teams shook off the rust with a week 1 FCS matchup, Cal decided to save the FCS game for the end of the OOC schedule. After a strong showing against a good TCU defense, I feel more hopeful that the season-opening stinker truly was rust, but I suppose we’ll see how Cal handles another physically outmatched defense. I expect Cal should be able to handle their business, but you never know when some FCS team will put it all together while the FBS team flounders. Just ask Washington.

Go Bears.