Stanford football suffers another humiliating defeat by Sacramento State.
The Stanford Cardinal football team, once a powerhouse in the Pac-12 conference and a contender for national championships, has fallen on hard times in recent years. The 2023 season has been especially disappointing for the Cardinal faithful, as they have lost two of their first three games, including a shocking upset by the Sacramento State Hornets, a team from the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
The game, which took place on Saturday, September 16, 2023, at Stanford Stadium, was supposed to be a homecoming for Stanford head coach Troy Taylor, who had previously coached the Hornets from 2019 to 2022. Taylor had led Sacramento State to unprecedented success in his tenure, winning 22 consecutive regular-season games dating back to the 2021 season and making an appearance in the FCS playoffs. Taylor had also transformed the Hornets’ offense into one of the most explosive and efficient in the nation, averaging over 40 points and 500 yards per game.
However, instead of a warm welcome and an easy victory, Taylor and his Cardinal team faced a hostile crowd and a determined opponent. The Hornets came into the game with a perfect 2-0 record, having defeated Northern Arizona and San Diego State in their previous outings. They also had a potent offense led by quarterback Kaiden Bennett, who had thrown for 579 yards and six touchdowns in the first two games, and running back Marcus Fulcher, who had rushed for 212 yards and four touchdowns.
The game was a back-and-forth affair, with both teams trading scores throughout the first half. The Hornets struck first with a 49-yard touchdown pass from Bennett to Fulcher on their opening drive. The Cardinal responded with a 54-yard touchdown run by Casey Filkins on their next possession. The Hornets then took a 10-7 lead with a 27-yard field goal by Devon Medeiros. The Cardinal tied the game at 10-10 with a 23-yard field goal by Joshua Karty. The Hornets regained the lead with a one-yard touchdown run by Elijah Tau-Tolliver. The Cardinal answered with a 69-yard touchdown pass from Ashton Daniels to Elic Ayomanor. The Hornets closed the half with another field goal by Medeiros, making the score 20-17 in favor of Sacramento State.
The second half was more of the same, as both teams continued to move the ball effectively. The Cardinal took their first lead of the game with a six-yard touchdown pass from Daniels to Filkins, making it 23-20. The Hornets tied the game again with a 37-yard field goal by Medeiros. The Cardinal had a chance to take the lead again, but Karty missed a 42-yard field goal attempt. The Hornets then delivered the final blow, as Bennett connected with Fulcher again for a stunning 46-yard touchdown pass with just over two minutes left in the game. The Cardinal tried to mount a comeback, but Daniels was intercepted by Daron Bland on their final drive, sealing the victory for Sacramento State.
The final score was 30-23 in favor of the Hornets, who celebrated their first ever win over a Power Five opponent and their first win over Stanford in school history. The Cardinal suffered their second loss of the season and their first loss to an FCS team since 2010, when they lost to UC Davis.
The game exposed many of the weaknesses that have plagued Stanford football in recent years, such as poor defense, inconsistent offense, lack of discipline, and lack of motivation. The Cardinal allowed the Hornets to rack up 449 yards of total offense, including 279 passing yards by Bennett and 100 rushing yards by Bennett. The Cardinal also committed nine penalties for 75 yards and turned the ball over twice. The Cardinal offense was unable to sustain drives or finish in the red zone, settling for two field goals and missing another one. The Cardinal also seemed to lack energy and urgency, especially in comparison to the Hornets, who played with passion and intensity.
The game also raised questions about Taylor’s coaching ability and future at Stanford. Taylor was hired in December 2022 after David Shaw resigned following a disappointing 6-6 season. Taylor was expected to bring his offensive expertise and winning culture to Stanford, but so far he has failed to deliver on either front. Taylor has been criticized for his play-calling, his personnel decisions, his clock management, and his lack of adjustments. Taylor has also been accused of losing the locker room and alienating some of his players and staff.
The game also cast doubt on Stanford’s chances of competing in the Pac-12 this year and beyond. The Cardinal are currently last in the Pac-12 North division with an 0-1 conference record and a 1-2 overall record. The Cardinal have a tough schedule ahead, with games against USC, Oregon, Washington, UCLA, and Notre Dame. The Cardinal will need to win at least five of their remaining nine games to become bowl eligible, a feat that seems unlikely given their current form.
The game also highlighted the rise of Sacramento State as a force in the FCS and a potential threat to other Power Five teams. The Hornets improved to 3-0 on the season and extended their regular-season winning streak to 23 games. The Hornets also proved that they can compete with and beat teams from higher divisions, as they did against San Diego State and Stanford. The Hornets have a balanced and explosive offense, a solid and opportunistic defense, and a confident and charismatic coach in Taylor’s successor, Jay Hill. The Hornets are ranked No. 2 in the FCS Coaches Poll and No. 3 in the STATS Perform FCS Top 25. The Hornets have a realistic chance of winning the Big Sky conference and making a deep run in the FCS playoffs.
The game between Sacramento State and Stanford was a historic and memorable one, for both good and bad reasons. It was a game that showcased the best of FCS football and the worst of Power Five football. It was a game that rewarded the underdog and punished the favorite. It was a game that changed the fortunes and perceptions of both programs. It was a game that will be remembered for a long time by both fans and players.