Winning is everything now that the Cal Poly football team has something to lose.
The Mustangs didn’t start the season with much fanfare. Having spent all of the reputation points built up in the Rich Ellerson years — when Cal Poly won three straight Buck Buchanan Awards and sent a string of record-breaking players to the NFL — the Mustangs (5-0, 3-0 Big Sky Conference) were an afterthought on the national scene, out of the rankings and out of mind.
But five straight wins to start the season has changed all of that.
Going into today’s game against visiting Northern Colorado at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Cal Poly has people thinking FCS playoffs. Perhaps even a conference crown could be in store for the Mustangs in their inaugural Big Sky season.
Who Cal Poly beats hardly matters at this point. The Mustangs topped Weber State 45-23 last week, and even though that dropped the Wildcats — arguably the season’s weakest opponent to date — to 0-6 on the season, Cal Poly saw its biggest rise in the polls.
The Mustangs jumped from 20th in The Sports Network media top 25 to 15th. They’re 14th in the coaches poll. It’s the highest placement since Cal Poly debuted just outside the top 10 in 2009, head coach Tim Walsh’s first season replacing Ellerson.
Now come the Bears (1-4, 0-2 Big Sky), a football program that has had tremendous trouble gaining any traction since making the jump to Division I and joining the Big Sky in 2006.
Playing its third home game of the season after two straight on the road, Cal Poly might have already won the game in many minds, but the Mustangs still have to execute.
“People talk and our players are no different than any other football team,” Walsh said. “They listen. They may even read the newspaper. But the bottom line thing is people are going to say they’re 1-4. They lost to Utah, they lost to Sac State, who beat Colorado, they lost to Montana, and they lost to Montana State. They played three of the best teams in the league, and those are things people don’t look at.
“I don’t think there’s any team you can take lightly in this league.”
Northern Colorado has played a tough schedule, but even so, the Bears’ scores have not been competitive. Outside of a 40-3 victory over Division II Colorado Mesa in the second week of the season, Northern Colorado has lost the other four games by an average of 25 points.
The Bears’ closest defeat was a 28-17 loss to Sacramento State.
Since moving up from Division II, Northern Colorado has won a total of nine games. The Bears were 0-11 last season, won three games each in 2009 and 2010 and won just one game a year in three seasons from 2006 to 2008.
Walsh was the head coach at Portland State when Northern Colorado made its transition to Division I. He’s 2-0 as a head coach against the Bears and handed them a 45-3 pounding in their first game against a Big Sky opponent as part of the conference in 2006.
Now in their second season under 1996 Northern Colorado graduate Earnest Collins Jr., the Bears are a much more formidable opponent than they were in their early years in Division I, Walsh said.
“Their program is improving every year,” Walsh said. “I was in the Big Sky when they first came in, and they weren’t very good. They’re much, much better personnel-wise, which is going to lead at some point in time to them doing what they’d like to do and win some games.”
The challenge was similar last week at Weber State. Cal Poly needed to secure a win most thought would come easy against a winless opponent.
As it was, the Wildcats used field goals on their first two drives and defensive stops against the Mustangs to jump out to a 6-0 lead.
Going against a defense that arguably rated statistically better than any other in the Big Sky, Weber State moved the ball better than any Cal Poly opponent had all season.
The Wildcats used frequent five-receiver formations to connect on short passes that moved the chains, but they weren’t just successful through the air.
Weber State racked up 528 yards of total offense — 291 passing and 237 rushing — to make a previously dominant defense look only average.
“Lesson’s hopefully well-learned,” Walsh said. “We show up, we play hard, and I think our defense has a little bit of respect to regain.”