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Sperbeck: Hornets must post winning record in Big Sky
A telltale barometer of a college football program is how it fares in its conference.
Does it contend annually, gravitate toward the middle of the pack or struggle to escape the lower tier?
Sacramento State has spent its 14 seasons in the Big Sky Conference in the latter two categories, compiling a 34-73 (.318) record in league games since joining the Football Championship Subdivision conference in 1996.
The Hornets have posted a winning conference record just once, going 5-3 under former coach John Volek in 2000. Sac State finished 4-4 twice, in Steve Mooshagian’s final season in 2006 and in current coach Marshall Sperbeck’s third year last season.
After going 3-5, 3-5 and 4-4 in his first three Big Sky seasons, Sperbeck said it’s important for the program to find a way to finish with a winning league record.
“We need to,” said Sperbeck, whose Hornets (1-1) open Big Sky play against Weber State (1-1) at 6:05 Saturday night at Hornet Stadium. “That’s one of our goals for this year. We think it’s a realistic goal.
“We need to strive for that. We shouldn’t accept anything but that.”
A 5-3 finish likely would push the Hornets into the upper tier of the nine-team league that Montana historically has dominated, with Eastern Washington, Montana State and Weber State also finishing in the top four in each of the last two seasons.
With 18 seniors and 23 juniors, Sac State has experience.
“This is the class to do it,” Hornets senior linebacker Peter Buck said. “We’re very senior, upper-class heavy, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
“We really expect big things. That’s why this week is so important. We can get ourselves not only a winning record but put a shock to the conference as far as beating Weber.”
How close are the Hornets to finishing with a winning Big Sky record?
“Very close,” said linebackers coach Lou Baiz, who has been with Sac State for 17 seasons, the longest stint of any coach in the league.
“The players are driven. They’re working their tails off. We’re practicing harder. Everything’s improved.
“This has got to be the year.”
The challenge became more difficult, though, when starting quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson suffered an ankle injury in the season opener at Stanford. He underwent surgery Monday to repair a detached ligament and is expected to be out for at least four to six weeks.
New Mexico State transfer Jeff Fleming, a Hornet for less than three weeks, has been learning the offense on the fly. But the new quarterback does have a deep, talented group of receivers, led by senior Brandyn Reed and bruising junior running back Bryan Hilliard.
As the Hornets look to step up, they also must be wary of the bottom of the league, which appears to be getting closer to the top. Consider Northern Colorado’s 50-47 loss in four overtimes at Weber State on Saturday night as exhibit A.
“That’s the Big Sky Conference,” Sperbeck said. “Week in and week out, there’s going to be surprises.
“The gap is closing every season. It’s a very competitive league.”
Weber State coach Ron McBride, whose team is ranked 20th and 21st in the two FCS national polls, knows that all too well after his team’s narrow escape.
“Every team in this league is good,” he said. “There’s nobody in the conference where you can say, ‘We should be able to beat that team.’ “
By John Schumacher, The Sacramento Bee