While the talk in Fresno has been all about the extra work required to stop Cal Poly’s triple-option offense, the preparation has been just as intense in San Luis Obispo.
The Mustangs football team has plenty to digest in advance of Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at Fresno State.
The Bulldogs might not run a system as rare as the option, but their no-huddle spread is significant in its own right, and their 3-4 base defense presents challenges to the Cal Poly offense.
After practice at the Cal Poly Sports Complex on Tuesday, Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh made it clear that preparation hardly ended when the team left the practice field, and Fresno State is going to be a hefty upgrade over San Diego, the nonscholarship FCS program the Mustangs beat 38-16 to open the season.
“The three advantages for them are number one, their personnel is pretty darn good,” Walsh said. “Number two, they’ve had a couple extra days to prepare. We would have preferred to be on equal ground that way, and I think number three, we have to get some guys healthy.”
The Bulldogs survived a 52-51 overtime game against Rutgers last Thursday, allowing their players and coaches to turn their attention toward the Mustangs’ unconventional offense earlier than most opponents.
Cal Poly would have preferred to have the same amount of lead-in time to game plan for a program that received 22 votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the second-most recognition among mid-major teams.
Led by senior quarterback Derek Carr, the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Week, the Fresno State offense put up 456 passing yards and five touchdown passes.
Carr set conference records with 52 completions and 73 attempts, a performance that landed him on The Jim Rome Show on Tuesday. The Bulldogs ran the ball just 23 times for 81 yards. Running back Marteze Waller was the leading rusher with just 30 yards on eight carries.
Most of Carr’s passes were quick and came on short routes. Three different receivers had at least 13 catches, and Carr averaged just 8.8 yards per completion.
The strategy appeared to be getting the Bulldogs’ skill players the ball in space as soon as possible, forcing the defense to put an emphasis on tackling.
“We just need to fly around and make plays and just be fundamentally sound,” Cal Poly senior cornerback Vante Smith-Johnson said. “If everybody plays our system and we all swarm to the all, we’re going to make some plays.”
Smith-Johnson is a Fresno native. He and teammate Wesley Flowers, a junior defensive end, were teammates at Edison High.
Smith-Johnson was on the sideline holding personnel cards when the teams met in 2010. Though he was not on the field for the 38-17 Bulldogs’ victory, Smith-Johnson would lose his redshirt when injuries forced him into action later in the season.
He’s since become Cal Poly’s top cover man.
Flowers wasn’t with the Mustangs in 2010. He committed to UCLA out of high school and transferred to Cal Poly prior to last season, immediately finding a home among the Mustangs’ deep rotation of defensive linemen.
Fresno State’s quick passing game can also negate the play of the defensive line, which also features Fresno product and senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz, but Flowers said the line can’t get discouraged.
“We just got to have that hungry vengeance,” Flowers said, “and try to get to the quarterback as soon as possible at least try to affect his throwing lanes or make him hurry or something, put a little pressure on him at the same time.”
Potential quarterback shakeup for Mustangs
After completing 71.4 percent of his passes and throwing for 226 yards against San Diego, junior quarterback Vince Moraga is entrenched as the starter, but there could be a new second-stringer this weekend.
Sophomore Air Force transfer Dano Graves appeared to limp off the field in backup duty Saturday and had ice taped around his left foot at practice Tuesday.
Walsh said Graves has been unable to practice so far this week and might not get enough repetitions to be available Saturday.
If Graves cannot go, sophomore Chris Brown would assume the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, with freshman Tanner Trosin at No. 3.
Future of the series
Saturday’s game will the be the second of a two-game contract between the two programs, with any future dates in the series yet to be negotiated.
Since Walsh took over in 2009, Cal Poly has played every non-BCS Division I program in California at least once, and the coach said he would like to continue that trend.
The Mustangs have games against FBS programs New Mexico State, Nevada and Arizona State in upcoming seasons, so it could be awhile before any agreements are reached.
“We would love to play San Diego State, San Jose State or Fresno State every year, at least one of them,” Walsh said. “But that has to work out for everybody’s schedule, and sometimes that’s difficult to do.”