Cal Poly has Big Sky football showdown in North Dakota

North Dakota’s high-powered offense will give Cal Poly’s powerful defense a test as teams meet after winning their conference openers

jscroggin@thetribunenews.comSeptember 28, 2012 

After watching film of the Cal Poly football team’s 28-20 horseshoe rivalry victory over UC Davis last week, North Dakota head coach Chris Mussman sounded like he wanted to start his own trophy rivalry with the Mustangs.

If not for the Big Sky Conference’s unbalanced schedule, where teams are only guaranteed to play two regional opponents on an annual basis, Mussman might likely have tried to get a yearly prize to put on the line.

But for today’s matchup in Grand Forks, N.D., between the two former Great West Conference foes — as was the case in last year’s meeting — something a little weightier could be at stake.

“In our short time playing Cal Poly, we’ve had some interesting games with those guys as well,” said Mussman, who took note of the passion between the Mustangs and Aggies.

“They’ve been consistent. Every year, this is a playoff-caliber team. And they’ve been kind of the measuring stick for us in the Great West. How do we match up and how do we look compared to Cal Poly?”

In 2009, the programs’ first meeting since the 1972 Camellia Bowl in Sacramento, North Dakota earned a comeback win that eliminated the Mustangs from playoff contention. In 2010, Cal Poly held on for a one-point win decided by a last-minute field goal. And last season, the Mustangs won in the Alerus Center for the first time in a victory that ended up ensuring the teams would share a portion of the final Great West Conference title.

This season, though it’s too early to say it could be for the conference title, both teams won their Big Sky openers to set up this match between the conference’s most explosive offense and its stingiest defense.

“They’re saying it’s the biggest game ever played at the Alerus Center,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “That’s a pretty good statement considering they’ve won a Division II national championship in that city.”

Said Mussman: “This is the first Big Sky Conference home game. It’s against a nationally ranked team. This is a big opportunity for our program in our young transitional life. So this is a game where a lot of people are excited to see where we are as a program.”

Debuting at No. 23 this week, the Mustangs (3-0) are ranked in both major national top 25 polls for the first time this season, and the defense has been a big part of their success.

After ranking as one of the worst teams against the pass last season, Cal Poly is 13th in the FCS in total defense, allowing only 287.3 yards per game in victories over San Diego, Wyoming and UC Davis.

Each week, Walsh has faced questions about whether the opponent will present the biggest offensive challenge of the season. That concept hasn’t been more apt than it is today.

North Dakota (3-1), which began the transition to Division I in 2007, has churned up yardage and points at an alarming pace.

Going without a nickname after the former Fighting Sioux was retired prior to this season, North Dakota ranks third in the FCS averaging 46.8 points per game. North Dakota’s only loss came in a 49-41 shootout at San Diego State. Last week, North Dakota pounded Sacramento State 35-13, and the Hornets had an upset victory over Pac-12 Colorado under their belt.

And whereas senior quarterback Marcus Hendrickson passed for 434 yards against the Aztecs, the passing game took a back seat against Sacramento State one week later, when the rushing attack racked up 294 yards and three touchdowns. Senior running back Mitch Sutton accounted for 162 yards and all three scores.

With a receiver who leads the FCS in touchdown catches in junior Greg Hardin, a quarterback who ranks second in the country in passing efficiency in Hendrickson and a proven running game to complement all of the above, Walsh is expecting to have to score at least 30 points.

The Mustangs might even need more than the 41 points they scored against San Diego in the season opener.

“They’re going to try to be physical with us with a big offensive line,” Walsh said, “just like they did Sacramento in the second half. Sacramento was coming off beating Colorado, and to get beat the way they beat them was a pretty impressive win on the road for North Dakota. I don’t have any doubt that the physicality is going to be a big part of the game.”

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