It wasn’t long ago when the Cal Poly and Sacramento State football teams played every year.
From 1983 to 2006, the Mustangs and Hornets played a grudge game without a name and without a trophy, but one year before the two in-state rivals — two of the last four remaining FCS programs in California — celebrated their silver anniversary together, the meetings stopped.
Still needing to fill a schedule consisting mostly of nonconference games, Cal Poly didn’t stop looking north. With a full slate of Big Sky Conference games every year, Sacramento State found other options more attractive.
The series had been a stalemate over the years at that point. Since their first meeting in 1967, each program owned 15 victories over the other. But when the consecutive string ended, the Mustangs had taken five of six with three blowout victories mixed in.
Some observers in San Luis Obispo casually talked about the Hornets being afraid to reschedule with Cal Poly as if it were an accepted truth. When Sacramento State resumed the rivalry with a nonconference game in 2009, nothing happened on the field to dispel the notion.
In head coach Tim Walsh’s first year with Cal Poly, Tony Smith opened his career as the Mustangs’ starting quarterback with 218 passing yards and three touchdowns and 92 rushing yards for another score in a runaway 38-19 victory.
Three years later, if Cal Poly followers are expecting more of the same, they could be mistaken. This does not appear to be your older brother’s Hornets.
“A couple things have changed,” said Walsh, who guides his No. 11 Mustangs (7-0, 5-0 Big Sky) into Sacramento today. “Marshall Sperbeck’s doing a good job as a head coach and building the program to what he wants to do, and the players are starting to learn how to win.”
Sacramento State (5-3, 3-2 Big Sky) has won a couple of eye-openers in the past two seasons. The Hornets opened 2011 with a 29-28 overtime victory at Oregon State, the program’s first victory over a BCS-conference opponent.
They followed that astounding Pac-12 upset with a last-minute 30-28 victory at Colorado the second week of this season.
The program has made significant upgrades in recent years as well.
A new fieldhouse with football locker rooms, coaching offices and a 6,000-square-foot weight room opened in 2008, and the grass in Hornet Stadium was upgraded to field turf in 2010.
“When you win in Colorado and places like that, those are huge wins as far as confidence level in your football program,” Walsh said.
“Their facilities have probably improved more than anyone else in the Big Sky. Maybe they’re recruiting a different level of guy. Overall, they’re doing good quality work that’s giving them the opportunity to compete for championships in the Big Sky.”
Competing for that championship has been the biggest hurdle. The same year Sacramento State beat Oregon State, the Hornets also beat conference power Montana, which was ranked as high as 10th at the time, 42-28 in Sacramento.
But the Hornets didn’t make the playoffs that season. They weren’t even close.
Even after beating the Beavers and Grizzlies, Sacramento State lost three of its last four Big Sky games and dropped the season finale to rival UC Davis in The Causeway Classic to finish with a 4-7 record, 3-5 in the Big Sky.
Walsh said the Hornets’ perceived inconsistency after big victories has more to do with the strength of the Big Sky than anything. All season, the former Portland State coach has preached the ability of any team in the conference to beat another.
“Sacramento State’s living proof,” Walsh said. “You can beat Montana and Oregon State in the same year, and you don’t go to the playoffs? The league is that good, and if you really don’t believe that, to me, you’re putting yourself in a tough position.”
Despite the emotional victory over Colorado, the Hornets have dropped two Big Sky games so far this season.
But the playoff dream is not lost. With three regular-season games left, Sacramento State could win out, still be in the hunt for a share of the conference title and be an effective lock for an at-large berth to the FCS playoffs.
Cal Poly has had a dream season itself, but the Mustangs can’t stop winning. Their playoff fate is not secure yet either, which makes this a crucial reunion between the once-and-again rivals.
“This is a big game for them,” Walsh said, “and a big game for us.”