Shortly after it was over, after Sacramento State pulled off perhaps the biggest win in program history since the Hornets began blocking and tackling in 1954, the man of the hour suddenly had the night hat.
It was Kaiden Bennett, quarterback star for the gritty and inspired Hornets, who danced his way out of Stanford Stadium with a cowboy hat and a border that ran from Palo Alto to the state capital. Bennett isn’t much of a cowboy, but he’s all about style, fun, passion and results, and he had his fingerprints all over Sacramento State’s stirring and stunning 30-23 victory over the Cardinal in front of 23,848 fans.
The outcome sent the Hornets into a joyous frenzy, players and coaches jumping and hugging, the Sacramento State fans who made the three-hour, traffic-heavy trip with the band, school administrators and alums. The Hornets’ third win over a Pac-12 opponent marred the home coaching debut for Troy Taylor, the former Hornets coach who faced old friends and many of the players he recruited.
“Just having fun,” Bennett said over the straw lid, laughing in reflection.
With a helmet on, Bennett had a load of fun. He passed for 279 yards on 21-of-33 passing, including the game winner to Marcus Fulcher with 1:32 left after narrowly avoiding a sack. Bennett also rushed 13 times for 100 yards and a score as the Hornets extended their regular-season winning streak to 22.
Bennett overcame some passes he would have liked to return but stuck with it, the kind of team decision coach Andy Thompson continues to praise as he moved to 3-0 with the FCS-ranked No. 6 Hornets. Thompson was hired by Taylor to run the defense before the 2019 season, and together they became fast friends and instant champions, winning three straight Big Sky Conference championships after the program suffered through years of mediocrity or misery.
Thompson’s defense had the final say with a late stop to stop Stanford. Bennett took a knee in the victory formation and led the joyous charge off the field.
Bennett scrambled and fired a pass to Fulcher, the powerfully built running back, who then ran down the Hornets’ sideline for a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown, right in front of the Sacramento State fan section.
“I knew once he broke the first tackle he had the juice to go,” Bennett said.
Said Thompson of Bennett: “He was very motivated to lead us. Gosh, he has a big heart.”
Sacramento State led 17-14 at the half and 20-17 after three quarters, none of the players accepting the fact that FCS teams should not hang with a Power 5 conference FBS program.
What’s more, the Hornets were paid a tidy sum for making the trip and accepting the challenge, a check for $630,000, the norm when a Pac-12 team takes on an FCS program it needs to beat. UC Davis, for example, received a $635,000 check from Oregon State for its efforts earlier this season in Corvallis, where the Beavers won in a rout.
Said Taylor afterward: “Congratulations to Sacramento State and their staff and players. They made a lot of plays and made more than we did. And they won the game. … Really talented players. Really good coaching staff. They did a great job . They were ready to play and they did some nice things schematically, and obviously the guys are really competitive. They did a great job.”
Stanford took a 14-3 lead after scoring on its first two possessions. The Cardinal recovered an onside kick and drove to make it 21-3 when Caleb Nelson ended the threat with an interception in the end zone. Bennett’s 1-yard keeper with 35 seconds left in the half gave the Hornets a 17-14 lead.
Stanford led 23-20 early in the fourth quarter on Joshua Karty’s third field goal, though Zach Schreiner connected on a 44-yard field goal with 4:13 left.
After the game, Thompson walked to the stands to greet his wife, Mikal and their three young sons, Mac, Austin and Teague. His sons were at a recent Hornets practice, living the good life, until the father/coach told them to stop trying to scale the goal posts.
“Wasn’t that fun?” Thompson excitedly asked Hornets first-year president Luke Wood and athletic director Mark Orr, who, as a Cal-alum, never tired of beating Stanford.
“I think a lot of people were wondering how we would do if we lost Troy to Stanford, if the sky is falling,” Orr said. “We’re doing well. This confirms what we already knew. We have a great program with great student-athletes. I’m so happy for Andy Thompson, Kris (Richardson) and Bobby (Fresques).
That trio stayed at Sacramento State to maintain momentum despite offers to join Taylor at The Farm, Richardson as assistant head coach and Fresques switching from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. They called it a great game, players and Orr said, and the trio embraced after the game ended.
“That’s sports,” Thompson said, growing emotional. “It was nice.”
Orr added, “It’s a great day for Sac State and a great day for Sacramento. And as an old Cal guy, yeah, it’s always nice to beat Stanford.
Said Wood, the president: “With this coaching transition, we showed that we’re not going anywhere. We showed that we’re going to win another conference championship. We showed that Sacramento State is a world-class place for academics and athletics. We’re the first public school.”
Thompson reminded his team that this triumph will lose a lot of luster if the Hornets lose their Big Sky opener at Idaho next week. Cal defeated Idaho 31-17 on Saturday in Berkeley.
“We’re humbled,” Thompson said. “We know it’s hard to win football games. We deserve everything. We want people to know that Sac State is the place to be in Northern California.
This story was originally published September 16, 2023, 8:41 p.m.
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