Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Kabir Rao — football beat reporter at The Daily Californian — and Brandon Bailey, John Cabales and Jordan Parker — football beat reporter, sports editor and editor in chief of The State Hornet, respectively. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Kabir Rao: After winning the 2019 Big Sky championship, the Hornets opted out of the conference’s 2020 season due to health concerns. How do you think having a yearlong absence affected the team and its preparation for this season?
Brandon Bailey: There was a lot going on during COVID-19, but honestly, the Hornets were able to benefit from it. They got two transfer classes in, the 2019 class and this year’s recruitment class. It gave them more time to indulge into the team, learn how they operate and figure out their way on the team. It also gave other players time coming off of injuries, recovering from knickknacks from the prior year. They had a full year to recover and let those things heal up. It benefited them in a sense, but it could have also been detrimental in the sense that they weren’t able to play against an opponent. They were able to come together as a team, but they weren’t able to put it together against an opponent for a whole year.
Jordan Parker: The team made the right decision in opting out of the 2020 season. But with that being said, the team is still shaking off some of the rust from almost a two-year absence. As the season goes on, it’ll find its rhythm.
John Cabales: It took away from the Hornets figuring out what they wanted to do at the quarterback position. Even if they would have played a modified schedule, it would have given them some time to evaluate them better.
KR: Sacramento State enters this game with a split 1-1 record. What was the biggest change you saw between its opening win over Dixie State and last week’s loss to Northern Iowa?
BB: When the Hornets played against Dixie State, their defense came out really strong and held it down for them throughout the game, as well as their special teams, which scored one field goal. They were able to keep the momentum defensively. Going into this past week, they were facing a tougher opponent in Northern Iowa. That team was a bigger and more physical team, and turnovers were the main difference for us. They had six turnovers that game, and the field position was switched in Northern Iowa’s favor because of it.
JP: The biggest change that I saw was the quarterback play. Over the last two weeks, Sac State has tried to employ a two-quarterback system that isn’t sustainable long-term. It’s a tough spot because the Hornets lost Kevin Thomson, but they have to find a way to generate production from that position because the team will only go as far as its leader goes. Other than that, the defense gave up a lot more points. But that can be attributed to the sloppy turnovers on the offensive side of the ball and giving UNI more opportunities to capitalize.
JC: We had more of a balanced attack in Week 1. We got away from running the ball and tried to rely solely on quarterback Asher O’Hara to win the game.
KR: The Hornets’ offense has yet to reach the 20-point mark this season. Where specifically do you feel Sacramento State’s offense needs to grow?
BB: It’s a great offense, but the problem is consistency. It’ll put together drives, but it needs to finish them off with touchdowns. Special-teams-wise, it’ll get points. But when it comes to finishing off drives with touchdowns in the red zone, it hasn’t been the best thus far.
JP: It’s simple — the quarterback position. Head coach Troy Taylor needs to make a definitive decision about who the starters are and then build the offense around its stars: Elijah Dotson and Pierre Williams.
JC: They have had success moving the ball but are not converting in the red zone. Where they need to grow is the goal line and red-zone conversion.
KR: Which Hornets will give Cal the most trouble Saturday?
BB: Marshel Martin and Dotson. Martin plays tight end — he was a preseason All-American, as was Dotson. Both players give the Hornets’ offense versatility. Dotson can catch out of the backfield; he’s very experienced, having been on the team for four years now. Martin is a guy that can spread the field out and also go up and get it to make that play for you.
JP: Dotson will give Cal the most trouble because he’s a versatile running back that can hurt you on the ground and through the passing attack.
JC: Wide receiver Williams and tight end Martin both have a chance at having a big game this week. They are both capable of making big plays, along with Dotson.
KR: Sacramento State has experimented with a two-quarterback system this year between juniors O’Hara and Jake Dunniway. Is that a sustainable plan of action, or will one of the two win out the starting job?
BB: As of right now, it’s hard to tell. From what I’ve been told by coach Taylor, he’s going on a week-by-week basis. Eventually, he may go with one, but for now, he’s going week by week. Personally, I believe they both give the team a chance to win. O’Hara is a great quarterback because he can stand in the pocket but can also move around and give the Hornets more versatility on offense. Dunniway is a great quarterback and can also move, but just not as well as O’Hara. Both are great options, and they should go with whomever they think they can win with the most.
JP: One of the two will eventually win the starting job. I don’t know how that will be determined, but if they don’t make a choice, I don’t see how using two each game will work going forward in these tougher games.
JC: One of the two needs to solidify his role as the sole starting quarterback. Playing two quarterbacks isn’t a winning system no matter how long or short you are taking the other out.
KR: How do you see this game playing out, and what is your final score prediction?
BB: The game will be a little closer than people think. Cal has had two very close games against Nevada and TCU. The Bears will be ready to come out and redeem themselves by securing their first win of the year. But Sacramento State has a chance to come out and do something special as well. It has something to prove in playing a Football Bowl Subdivision program. Sacramento State has a lot to prove offensively. It has the potential to spread the team out and put points on the board. But the Hornets are trying to figure it out right now, especially given that they’re going with the two quarterbacks and still putting it all together to stay consistent. It’s up for grabs because both teams have something to prove. I’d go with 24-17, Cal.
JP: Sacramento State is going to need to score a lot to beat Cal, but Cal is also not the powerhouse it used to be. I predict a shootout, and Sac State takes it 35-34.
JC: This is the game where Sacramento State gets everything clicking. It will probably be close, so 31-27, Sac State.