Sacramento State and UC Davis meet with FCS berths on line

The Causeway Classic means something to Dan Hawkins because he played in it and he has coached in it. It’s never mattered more.

Rivalry games like this are circled, underlined, emphasized, and leads to a pause in the “one game at a time!” mantra. This is the next game, the game, and the final one of the regular season. And it needs good spokespeople. Here’s one.

“There’s a lot of pride in it, a lot of emotion,” the UC Davis coach said.

Hawkins was fullback for UC Davis in the early 1980s, when he sought out linebackers to crash into, and none were more inviting than a guy in a Sacramento State uniform trying to defend the end zone. Hawkins went 2-0 against Sac State as a player in 1981 and ‘82. Now in his fifth season as head coach of the Aggies, he seeks a triumph over the visiting Hornets in the 67th Causeway Classic on Saturday afternoon to bound into the NCAA FCS playoffs with some feel-good momentum.

For surging No. 11-ranked Sac State, a victory over No. 10 UCD would crown the Hornets as Big Sky Conference champions for the second time since 2019. There was no fall 2020 season due to the pandemic, so this game has been a long time coming. And how cool is all of this?

Causeway Classic

The Causeway means more now than it has before, and it’s about time. This marks the third straight season the Causeway had championship hardware as a bonus prize beyond program and school pride. In 2018, UCD beat Sac State to win the Big Sky Conference trophy. It was the 31st league banner since the Aggies started football in 1915, but it was the first in this conference, the best in the FCS.

Sac State? There have been a lot of stops and starts over the decades. The program has won four conference championships since the Hornets first slipped on helmets in 1954, the first coming in 1964 under coach Ray Clemons. Think about that for a moment. Sac State won three championships over a 65-year period period and now can win two under coach Troy Taylor in the last three seasons.

And why can’t the Causeway with title and playoff implications not become the norm? It can, it should and it will if the last three seasons are an indication. Regardless of the outcome Saturday, UCD and Sac State are all but locked into the FCS playoff mix already. Twenty-four teams go. These are two of the best.

The only other time Sac State and UCD both reached the playoffs the same season was in 1988. That was also the last time the Causeway resonated like this. In ‘88, Sac State halted an 18-year losing skid to UCD, and then backed it up with an NCAA Division II playoff victory over the Aggies.

Big Sky powers, finally

Sac State joined the Big Sky in 1996 and UCD entered in 2012, but the programs were rarely both good the same season to make the Causeway a must-see event. Then there was the gap to close. For years, the Big Sky was owned and won by Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington or Weber State. None of those areas has near the recruiting hotbed that California has, and Sac State and UCD have seized that talent pool under their dynamic coaches, both California products to the core.

This Causeway could feature five quarterbacks, all a key cog: Miles Hastings, Hunter Rodrigues and Trent Tompkins for UCD and Asher O’Hara and Jake Dunniway of Sac State. All but O’Hara are California products. Other key players for the programs are also California products, heavy on Northern California, be it runners, receivers, linemen or defenders.

UCD and Sac State both sport 8-2 records. UCD has two conference losses so it cannot win even a share of the Big Sky, but the Aggies can deny Sac State the outright conference crown. Sac State has won seven consecutive games, the longest for the program since 1966 when it won eight in a row to end the season. The Causeway is shaping up to be what it was designed to be: a memorable outing with more to come.

“There’s plenty of good players in the area for recruiting, and the high school football around here is incredible; the coaching is incredible,” said Sac State’s Taylor of why both programs can remain ranked and relevant. “It’s fun to see Davis doing well. Hawk’s a great guy and coach. We love playing them. It’ll be a great day.”

The Causeway has been played in the heat of early season showdowns, in the fog, in the mud or muck of late-season encounters. UCD leads the series 46-21. UCD’s venue will be sold out, packed to berms. Alumni players and students will be there. The rivalry matters to Dunniway, the Sac State quarterback who started his career at UCD, and to Kooper Richardson, who started a ton of games in the trenches at UCD as a team captain where he graduated last spring. He is now playing his final year of eligibility at Sac State as a graduate transfer with remaining playing eligibility. Kooper’s father, Kris, is his position coach. His son aspires to be a football coach.

“I’ll be excited to go back and we will take it one game at a time,” Kooper Richarson said in good coach-speak.

He added, “I’m excited to go back to UCD to play this. I’ve been saying this since I first got to Davis. Rivalry this, rivalry that. If we both can play for a championship or a playoff berth, how cool is that? To see the growth of both programs is great. It’ll be a great game. It’ll be super special.”

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988. He is a 14-time award winner from the California Prep Sports Writer Association. In 2021, Davidson was honored with the CIF Distinguished Service. He is a member of the California Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.

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