Cal Poly football coach Tim Walsh projected confidence as he walked through the team meeting room early Sunday morning where the Mustangs gathered to watch a live televised FCS playoff selection show.
Less than 12 hours earlier, Cal Poly put the finishing touch on an impressive 2016 regular season, defeating upset-minded Northern Colorado 55-48 in a thrilling contest inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
The reward for navigating the most difficult schedule in the country and finishing 7-4 overall was a coveted at-large bid into the 24-team FCS playoffs, the program’s first postseason bid since 2012 when many of this year’s fifth-year seniors were true freshmen.
The No. 21-ranked Mustangs will host Pioneer Football League champion San Diego (9-1) in the first round at 4 p.m. Saturday. It will be a rematch of Cal Poly’s Sept. 10 home opener, which resulted in a 38-16 victory and stood as the Toreros’ only loss of the season.
“Our players earned it,” Walsh said. “I think we were underestimated from the get-go, even by the Big Sky coaches. I knew we had a lot of people coming back that were good football players. I think they proved it.”
The winner between Cal Poly and San Diego will advance to play top-seeded and five-time defending national champion North Dakota State in the second round. Walsh said the coaching staff would finalize its practice schedule on Sunday, and mentioned there’s the added benefit of having no classes this week for Thanksgiving break.
That could be a significant bonus for a Mustangs team that usually begins practice at 6 a.m. during the regular season. More sleep and extra time in the training room shouldn’t be overlooked as they begin preparing for San Diego and their first home playoff game in eight years.
“I think it’s a pretty special accomplishment for these guys,” Walsh said, “and hopefully they’re willing to give it everything they have to take advantage of the opportunity that exists.”
The Big Sky qualified four teams into the postseason: No. 2 Eastern Washington, North Dakota, Weber State and Cal Poly. The Southern Conference had five teams selected, while the Colonial Athletic Association and Missouri Valley Football Conference received four bids apiece.
There was little question the Mustangs’ resume warranted a postseason berth. They defeated Missouri Valley champion South Dakota State on the road, handled conference champion San Diego and suffered close road losses at North Dakota (9-2) and resurgent Weber State (7-4).
Fifth-year senior quarterback Dano Graves said the postseason excitement was palpable following Saturday’s win over a Northern Colorado team on the playoff bubble.
“That’s something that you don’t get every season,” Graves said. “Having this opportunity alone, I think it’s going to be great for this team. I think this next week will be great for this team.”
Graves did everything he could against the Bears to ensure Cal Poly would extend its season. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound signal caller completed 14 of 15 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed for a season-high 147 yards with a remarkable 42-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter that proved to be the game-winner.
For the season, Graves completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 1,445 yards and 17 touchdowns against four interceptions. He also rushed for 684 yards and nine touchdowns, helping Cal Poly lead the FCS is rushing for the fourth consecutive season.
“How much more can I say about the young man than what I’ve said?” Walsh said after speaking at length about Graves’ clutch performance. “He is just a pleasure to watch play the game of football. And, you know what? He plays it everyday. It’s not just on game night he plays like that. He practices like that.”
Of course, the Mustangs are far from a one-man band.
All-American fullback Joe Protheroe’s seventh 100-yard game of the season on Saturday gave him more than 1,200 for the year, the No. 1 individual mark in the Big Sky. Senior Kori Garcia rushed for two early touchdowns against the Bears and concluded the regular season with 684 yards rushing and six touchdowns, averaging nearly 7 yards per carry.
Junior running back Kyle Lewis returned from a knee injury to catch a 26-yard touchdown pass from Graves late in the first half. He finished the regular season with 1,082 all-purpose yards and 10 total touchdowns.
Running back DJ Peluso and wide receivers Carson McMurtrey and J.J. Koski all proved to be key contributors throughout the year, making Cal Poly one of the more difficult teams to defend for 60 minutes.
“Just knowing that every snap could be our last of the year, it really motivated me,” Protheroe said. “I really wanted our seniors to have a great game and I think they all played really well.”
The Mustangs’ focus now shifts to a San Diego team they’ve beaten four times in the last five years. Not having to travel during the first round was a welcome surprise, and Walsh said he fully expects to get the Toreros’ best shot Saturday evening.
That alone should be enough to keep Cal Poly from thinking about a second-round date with North Dakota State.
“If either one of us are looking that far ahead,” Walsh said, “we’re not going to get to Fargo.”
2016 FCS Football Playoffs
Automatic Qualifiers (10)
Big Sky Conference – Eastern Washington (10-1)
Big South Conference – Charleston Southern (7-3)
Colonial Athletic Association – James Madison (10-1)
Missouri Valley Football Conference – South Dakota State (8-3)
Northeast Conference – Saint Francis (Pennsylvania) (7-4)
Ohio Valley Conference – Jacksonville State (10-1)
Patriot League – Lehigh (9-2)
Pioneer Football League – San Diego (9-1)
Southern Conference – The Citadel (10-1)
Southland Conference – Sam Houston State (11-0)
Big Sky Conference – Cal Poly (7-4)
Big Sky Conference – North Dakota (9-2)
Big Sky Conference – Weber State (7-4)
Colonial Athletic Association – New Hampshire (7-4)
Colonial Athletic Association – Richmond (8-3)
Colonial Athletic Association – Villanova (8-3)
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference – North Carolina A&T (9-2)
Missouri Valley Football Conference – Illinois State (6-5)
Missouri Valley Football Conference – North Dakota State (10-1)
Missouri Valley Football Conference – Youngstown State (8-3)
Southern Conference – Chattanooga (8-3)
Southern Conference – Samford (7-4)
Southern Conference – Wofford (8-3)
Southland Conference – Central Arkansas (9-2)