MISSOULA — Immanuel Anderson remembers looking up at the scoreboard and feeling a pit in his stomach rooted in disappointment.
As Justin Strong sprinted across the goal line, the Washington-Grizzly Stadium scoreboard flipped to one of the biggest point disparities in the venue’s 32-year history. With two minutes to play in the third quarter, Montana led Anderson and the Sac State Hornets 61-0.
By the time the carnage cleared, the Griz had a 68-7 win, one of their most lopsided victories in program history. Montana rolled up 655 yards of total offense as Brady Gustafson threw four touchdowns, Chad Chalich tossed two more scoring passes, six different receivers scored touchdowns and John Nguyen rushed for more than 100 yards. The Griz defensive front pulverized Sac State quarterback Nate Ketteringham, sacking him five times and hitting him no less than 25 times.
Anderson, who then went by Manny Scott-Anderson, was one of seven starters on that Sac State defense that was either a sophomore or a freshman during the October onslaught two years ago.
A group hungry to prove they belong in the conversation of the Big Sky’s best returns to the scene of the bludgeoning for the first time on Saturday. Sacramento State did not play Montana in any form last season. The Hornets bring a 2-1 record to Missoula and a desire to prove the last trip to Washington-Griz was an anomaly.
“Since then, we have improved in every way, experience wise, strength wise and understanding the game a lot better,” Anderson said. “That game was a big head turnaround. We never experienced that ever before as a team. It was definitely a head snapper.”
Sac State’s rebuilding from the respectable program left by Marshall Sperbeck into the team that won seven games last season in Sears’ fourth at the helm began in 2015.
That season, Manoah Pearson flanked future NFL inside linebacker Darnell Sankey when Pearson was a true freshman. Anderson, defensive back Elijah Wallace and defensive end George Obinna all cracked Sac State’s rotation as true freshman in 2015.
By 2016, the youth movement was in full force as Obinna, Wallace, Pearson and defensive lineman Wyatt Ming (now an offensive lineman) all started as sophomores. Safety Mister Harriel, a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season in his first as a starter, played quite a bit on the back end as a sophomore in 2016, as did defensive tackle Dariyn Choates and safety Caelan Barnes, both freshmen at the time.
Sears won seven games in 2014 with a roster left stacked before Sperbeck’s controversial dismissal. The Hornets won two games each in 2015 and 2016, yet the admiration maintained faith. Sears remembers players sitting in his office crying over the despair that comes from disappointing defeat.
The group that now makes up one of the league’s most experienced, athletic and explosive defenses gave up more than 35 points eight times in 2016, allowing more than 40 five times, more than 45 more than four times and allowing the highest point total in a league game with the Grizzlies’ 68.
“The dark times were definitely really dark,” Anderson said at the Big Sky Kickoff. “It was definitely really tough. But we stuck together through it and it showed this last season just how close we have become as a team and all the hard work we’ve put in. But there’s still a ton of work to do.”
Last season, Sac State flew under the radar partially because the Hornets did not appear on the league’s game of the week on ROOT Sports a single time. The team won seven games, including posting a 6-2 record in Big Sky play.
Obinna and Harriel earned first-team all-league honors, Pearson was a third-team all-conference pick and Dre Terrell earned first-team All-Big Sky cornerback recognition thanks to a league-leading five interceptions. Every one of those talents is back this season, although Obinna has been slowed early, making hist first two tackles of the season last week in his first action.
“The number starts on their defensive side of the ball is astounding to me. I was looking at it last night and they are a veteran, veteran group,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “Again this week, it’s going to be their veterans against our young guys and we will see if we can get a W.
“I don’t have a great handle on what happened here two years ago, but it was a blowout so those roles are now reversed. I hope they don’t beat us like we beat them two years ago.”
Marcus Bruce also earned third-team all-league honors at outside linebacker as a junior last season but is out indefinitely this season and may take a redshirt. Anderson has earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors each of the last two seasons despite moving between defensive back and linebacker often. Choates was an honorable mention defensive tackle last season as well.
“I love this group and it’s been like watching your kids grow up,” Sears said in an interview at the Big Sky Kickoff in July. “I’m proud of them. A couple of years ago, oooh, ouch, that didn’t feel too good. I won’t say who but after their first year, he was crying his eyes out because he didn’t like to lose. Like a lot of them, he was trying to find his way.
“But it’s been a real blessing to see these kids grow up and now they are going to be seniors and you are really proud of them because they stuck with it.
Now that group gets to lead a team harboring playoff aspirations even if the outside respect is still on its way into Missoula to face a Griz team shrouded in uncertainty.
Last season, Sac State lost a non-conference game to eventual league co-champion Weber State 31-24 before beating the other co-champions from Southern Utah 54-27 to open conference play. Sac State lost to No. 9 Eastern Washington 52-31 and to No. 24 Northern Arizona 37-17.
The Hornets posted an average score of 45-26 in its five other victories over Idaho State, North Dakota, Northern Colorado, Cal Poly and UC Davis.
Sac State enters its Big Sky opener against the Griz with a 2-1 record that includes a 55-7 win over St. Francis (Illinois) of the NAIA and a 28-14 loss at FBS San Diego State. The Hornets led the Aztecs in the second half but couldn’t close the upset.
Last week, Sac trailed 17-14 midway through the fourth quarter to Northern Colorado. But the Hornets scored two touchdowns in four minutes to take a 28-17 lead, then held on for a 28-25 victory. Sears said Wednesday it was the first game his team had trailed in the fourth quarter and rallied to win in his tenure as Sac’s head coach.
“You look back and see our growth as a group,” Anderson said in an interview following Tuesday morning’s practice in Sacramento. “It’s not just the experience of playing. It’s size, strength-wise, being in the weight room.
“It’s a new team, a new year. We look back and see where we were and see how far we’ve come, this will definitely be a big test to our toughness, our experience as a team together and developing as a team.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.