FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Without a big upset to claim, the Cal Poly football team comes out of a two-game stretch against FBS opposition and goes into a short bye week knowing the results of the past two weeks won’t be the most impactful by the end of the season.
Despite Saturday’s 34-17 loss at Colorado State and a 41-25 loss at Fresno State the prior week, the Mustangs (1-2) can still call the campaign a success if they contend for the FCS playoffs. The only thing that matters now in that pursuit is their performance in the Big Sky Conference.
But how much of a wallop did Cal Poly have to sustain to get through those losses? And what do the two ineffective first halves played against the pair of Mountain West Conference foes foreshadow for future matchups against FCS competition?
Players weren’t interested in hearing about how Colorado State plays with more scholarships and attracts a higher caliber of athletes. The fact that second-half comebacks against both the Rams (1-2) and the Bulldogs (2-0) fell short provided the same amount of disappointment regardless.
“I don’t really look at it as up a division, down a division,” said junior receiver Willie Tucker, who leads the team with 15 catches for 308 yards and two touchdowns through the first three games. “Any game is any game. We just have to do what we gotta to get that ‘W.’ Obviously, we still haven’t found that yet, but we’re going to get it this week.”
Said senior linebacker Johnny Millard, tied for second on the team with 26 tackles: “It’s pretty well known the Big Sky is one of the best conferences in the FCS. Colorado State and Fresno State are great teams, but size-wise and speed-wise, we’re right there. We just have to play fundamentally sound.”
The fact remains, Cal Poly has suffered plenty of injuries and openly welcomes this week’s bye before traveling to Portland State for a Thursday game Sept. 26.
Tucker has experienced some hurt first-hand. He was tended to by athletic trainers late Saturday after being being landed on by a defender fighting for a fumble. That happened after the snap for a blocked field goal that Tucker was only holding because regular holder Alex Hubbard injured his hand playing safety.
Over the past two games, linebackers Cameron Ontko and Nick Dzubnar, who leads the team with 35 tackles, have each left the field with injuries before returning.
Defensive end Wesley Flowers was tended to on the field multiple times in Fresno and was unable to practice enough on a turf toe to make the trip to Fort Collins.
Slotback Cole Stanford has been hurt all season with various leg injuries, and starting junior quarterback Vince Moraga tore his ACL and meniscus against the Bulldogs before sophomore Chris Brown has filled the role capably in the time since.
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh disagreed with the idea that the Mustangs are any more hurt for playing FBS teams back to back, which hasn’t happened since his first season at Cal Poly in 2009.
“Most of the injuries are just injuries that happened,” Walsh said. “They weren’t injuries that wouldn’t have happened if we were playing Montana and Portland State back to back. They were just physical injuries against two physical football teams.
“We showed some explosiveness against both teams on offense. We ran the ball fairly well against two teams that are pretty good on defense.”
More troubling might be the slow starts in the past two games, in which Cal Poly fell behind and had to catch up in the second half, which can be hard to do with an option offense built in its foundation on a methodical running game.
Fresno State outgained Cal Poly 242-44 in total offense in the first half while building a 34-0 lead at the break. Colorado State’s halftime lead was a more modest 27-10, but the Rams looked just as unstoppable, racking up 353 yards to the Mustangs’ 180 in the first two quarters.
Walsh bemoaned the defensive effort against Colorado State as much as he did the offensive production against Fresno State.
On each occasion, Cal Poly clawed back to make the game competitive. The Mustangs were in the red zone with a chance to cut the Rams’ lead to three midway through the fourth quarter. Cal Poly also scored enough in the fourth against the Bulldogs to force Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter to summon his long-pulled starters back from the bench when the Mustangs pulled to within two scores.
But starting now, moral victories are not going to be enough to fuel the season, and that sense is starting to set in.
“It’s a little frustrating,” senior fullback Akaninyene Umoh said, “because as a team, we feel like we only played two halves in two football games. So, in my opinion, I feel like it should make us hungrier. We have a bye week coming. Look at the film and get things corrected. I know we’re going to come back stronger against Portland State. And we’re going to win; I know for sure about that.”