Pete Murdaca and Dominic Carmazzi are competing for the job, but it's UCLA transfer McLeod Bethel-Thompson's to lose, especially after Bethel-Thompson led the Hornets to a come-from-behind 31-28 victory over archrival Davis in last year's season finale. In three starts last year, Bethel-Thompson completed a solid 58 percent of his passes, but he did throw five interceptions to four touchdowns, so the Stanford defense may have the opportunity to snare a gift or two from the Hornets.
Other than quarterback Jason Smith, who started the first nine games of 2009 before going down to injury, the vast majority of Sacramento State's skill position players return. Eight of last year's top nine receivers are back, including No. 1 guy Brandyn Reed (731 yards, 46 catches, 7 TD, 16 yards per catch) and No. 2 John Hendershott (558 yards, 38 catches, 2 TD, 15 yards per catch). Those receivers' high yards per catch, coupled with a ratio of 16 passing TDs to 14 picks, suggests that Sacramento St. will try to take its shots deep in a high-risk, high-reward type of offense, an antithesis to a West Coast short-pass, ball-control type of offense. The Hornets threw for only 228 yards per game last year – and only 99 yards at UNLV, their one FBS opponent, so with Bethel-Thompson and the receivers back, the Hornets' charge will be to improve those passing stats in 2010, regardless of scheme.
The rushing attack, on the other hand, may yield any ground that the passing game gains in 2010. Last year, the Hornets ran for just 122 yards per game on 3.5 yards per carry, both fairly mediocre numbers, and this year, only two starting offensive linemen return. In 10 of Sacramento State's 12 2009 games, and 11 of Stanford's 13 2009 games, the team that ran for more yardage won the game, and the matchup of a solid Stanford front seven versus a young Hornet line points heavily in the Cardinal's direction.
Further complicating Sacramento State's rush game is the loss of Terrance Daily (617 yards, 5.2 yards per carry), 2009's leading rusher. Backups Sam McGowan (344 yards, 4.1 yards per carry) and Jake Croxdale (199 yards, 3.6 yards per carry) return, but each averaged a full yard per touch less than Daily last year. Perhaps the answer is Brian Hilliard, who ran for 826 yards as a true freshman in 2007, and 1,082 in 2008, but missed all last season after shoulder surgery.
Sacramento State averaged 33.7 points allowed last season, its worst mark in six years, so the Cardinal should have a chance to get their season off to a bang.
Starting up front, defensive line looks to be a major question mark, as the Hornets lost two of last year's starters. Instead of turning to their depth to compensate, Sacramento State moved three linebackers to the DL, the depth-chart equivalent of waving the white flag. The Hornets allowed 146 rush yards per game on a 4.3 per-carry average last season, so Stanford will have an excellent opportunity to forge an identity in the running game in the post-Toby Gerhart era.
The Hornets' back seven looks to have more familiar faces than their line, as last year's four top tacklers return, including strong safety Zach Schrader. Schrader was the star of the D last year, posting four interceptions and a team-high 103 tackles, which is both a good and bad sign for the Hornets, given his position in the defensive backfield.
Another scary sign for Sacramento State's back seven are last year's numbers, which are among the worst you'll see at any level of football: 287 passing yards per game, and a 67 percent completion allowed. UNLV, the one FBS team on the 2009 schedule, completed 17-of-21 passes for 250 yards, and if Andrew Luck and Stanford's offense are to live up to their lofty preseason hype, they should do something similar.
McCowan (23 yards per kick return) and Hendershott (26 yards per return) got plenty of reps last year and had solid kick return averages, albeit not 31.5 yards per return, ala Chris Owusu's 2009 mark. They should get plenty of opportunities to try to crack a big one against Stanford's kick coverage unit. The Hornets also look strong on field goals, as Chris Diniz returns after a strong 2009 (12-of-13 last year, 3-of-3 from 40+). Punter Augie Heath, however, averaged less than 33 net yards per punt last year, so Stanford may have several chances to return some short punts.
Stanford should have enough of an edge in three of the four unit-on-unit matchups that this game is never in doubt: Cardinal pass offense vs. Hornet pass defense, Cardinal rush offense vs. Hornet rush defense and Cardinal rush defense vs. Hornet rush offense. Anything less than a complete victory in any of these battles would be a very bad sign moving forward for the Cardinal, and I do expect Stanford to dominate in those areas of the game, based upon the personnel and statistical discrepancies highlighted above.
The one of area to watch then is Stanford's pass D, the Card's weakest area in 2009, versus the Hornets' pass O, their strongest area on paper this year. Sac State should be behind by enough that they'll have to go to the air early and often, and their scheme dictates that they'll take their shots deep and test Stanford's secondary, so how Stanford's defense, under new schemes and new coaching, performs should be illuminating for Cardinal fans. It won't matter for Week 1, but what we see out of Stanford's backfield here may send a strong signal about what to expect in the weeks and months to come.
Stanford 35, Sacramento State 10