Sacramento State Football Offensive Preview

I watched two whole games and so now I'm obviously an expert.

Sacramento State is probably the team with the most difficult previews I’m going to write. Prior to this season, the last game they played was in 2019, and that was an entirely different team. Two years later, there’s almost an entirely new set of starters, and so I only had two games from the 2021 season to watch to prepare this preview. Let’s at least start with some background information.

Sacramento State is coached by former Cal quarterback Troy Taylor, who prior to this was the Utah offensive coordinator. The last time Cal played Sacramento State was in 2014, when Cal was led by super stud QB Jared Goff, who then went on to dethrone Troy Taylor as Cal’s all-time leading passer. Naturally, Troy Taylor was furious, and he swore he would bring down the fury of 10,000 suns upon Memorial Stadium in 2021 (or maybe I just imagined that last part, who’s to say). In his first season at Sacramento State in 2019, he led them to a 9-4 record (after a 2-8 season in 2018), which included Sacramento State’s first ever share of the Big Sky conference title, as well as their first ever appearance in the FCS playoffs (where they went 0-1). Consequently, Troy Taylor was voted the 2019 FCS Coach of the Year. Sacramento State would like to build on that momentum, but they will need to do it with an almost entirely new cast of players.

Prior to this preview, the last time I watched Sacramento State play was in 2019, when they nearly shocked 35-point favorites ASU: they held ASU to 4 field goals and were only down 12-7 late in the 4th quarter, when a blown assignment resulted in a 72 yard touchdown for the final margin of victory, 19-7 ASU. I remember thinking at the time that if only quarterback Kevin Thomson were an average P5 QB that they could have torched ASU. Thomson transferred to Washington for his final season in 2020, although he never saw any playing time.

Sacramento State runs a spread offense with a dual-threat QB at the helm. They have three such quarterbacks listed on the depth chart (with “OR”s), but only two have seen playing time so far this season. Their most capable athlete is their star running back, Elijah Dotson.

Quarterback

The presumed starter is Middle Tennessee State transfer Asher O’Hara. O’Hara is the most talented of the bunch, although he has already had his ups and downs this season, throwing 3 interceptions in last week’s matchup against Northern Iowa.

With a mobile quarterback, Sacramento State will run a lot of designed QB runs or option plays.

O’Hara has decent cutting ability, but probably not game-breaking speed. However, he does not run like he’s afraid to get hit:

O’Hara can make some nice throws when given a clean pocket:

Another clean pocket:

The key for Asher O’Hara is whether or not his feet are set. Here he’s being blitzed, but he manages to step into his throw for a nice completion:

On the flip side, when O’Hara is under pressure, he will frequently roll out to his right and make a throw on the run. When he does this, he tends to make poor reads, and his mechanics break down, often resulting in badly underthrown balls into impossibly tight windows. I don’t want to extrapolate too much on the results of two games, but I saw plenty of examples of this:

Back to back throws, same mistake twice: QB Asher O’Hara feels pressure coming, makes a bad read, and tries to force the throw anyway. When he does this, he almost always has a man wide open elsewhere on the field.

Here’s one such roll-out, where he locks onto his receiver and doesn’t see his other receiver breaking free deep:

Another roll to his right, this time a poor throw into double coverage:

Just watch his mechanics here:

His back-up, Jake Dunniway, has played a handful of snaps so far this year. Here he is with a bit more zip on his throw on pretty much the exact same play:

However, Dunniway may have some issues of his own. Here’s the end of that same drive, which results in Dunniway getting pulled:

This is a pretty common mistake with new quarterbacks, and this might be why Sacramento State feels more comfortable with the more experienced Asher O’Hara.

I think it’s pretty clear how the Cal defense will likely attack the QB: flush him from the pocket, force him make throws on the run, and don’t let him get comfortable. I don’t expect many exotic looks from the Cal secondary, because O’Hara often just keys in on his first read anyway, regardless whether he’s open or not.

Running back

The real star of the show here is Elijah Dotson. He’s an FBS-level talent, and I am sure if I had more games to watch, this article would have a lot more Dotson highlights (at this point, he’s clearly a focus for opposing defenses, and so he’s been a little bit more bottled up). He’s undersized, but he’s a patient runner with great vision and cutback ability. He’s also a viable receiving target out of the backfield. As a result of being a focus for opposing defenses, he was often used as a decoy on plays, but a good number of Sacramento State plays are designed to just give him the ball in space and let Dotson make something happen.

With running threats at both QB and RB, Sacramento State likes to run the option a lot.

And here Sacramento State just gets to ball to Dotson in space to let him create his own yards:

Backing up Dotson is RB BJ Perkinson, who was a solid runner in his own right. Perkinson is a little less shifty than Dotson, but more of a power runner to complement Dotson.

Cal will need to overpower Sacramento State at the line and not let leave Dotson too many lanes to run.

Wide receiver

This was the hardest position to evaluate, because of lot of plays in these FCS games were just the result of missed assignments by opposing defenses. The best receivers I saw in their first two games were the tight end (6’2” 210 lbs) Marshel Martin and wide receiver (6’1” 210 lbs) Pierre Williams.

This is obviously a busted coverage, but note that the play is to the opposite side that RB Elijah Dotson (#33) is on.

TE Marshel Martin was the receiver most frequently called upon to make a catch in traffic:

When lined up in the slot, the similarly-sized WR Pierre Williams performed a similar role. Here he is sitting in the soft spot of zone:

Pierre Williams will also line up to the outside, and Sacramento State likes to throw it deep to Williams if they see him locked in single-man coverage.

It’s also worth mentioning that former Washington WR Jordan Chin transferred to Sacramento State, although he has yet to play. I can’t find any news about this (is he not eligible?), but Jordan Chin is definitely a talented wide receiver, and would almost certainly be a dangerous threat to the Cal defense. Definitely keep an eye out for him.

Conclusion

I realize that I was overconfident in the Cal defense’s ability to stop Nevada—this is no longer the unit that once shut down Justin Herbert—but I have trouble seeing too many vulnerabilities in the Cal defense for Sacramento State to exploit. Cal’s defense will be bigger, stronger, and faster, and I can’t see Sacramento State scoring touchdowns on anything other than a blown coverage (or Dotson beating a backup linebacker?) or something like that by Cal—which, let’s be honest, is probably going to happen at least once. The 2019 team was FCS playoff-caliber, but this year’s team looks a step below a lot of the other top FCS teams I’ve seen so far this season (Weber State, Montana, UC Davis, Southern Utah, etc). If Cal struggles in this game, we are almost certainly looking at another 2013 season.

Go Bears.