As thrilling as the Cal Poly football team’s season-opening victory against No. 8-ranked Montana was, the Mustangs weren’t interested in dwelling on past achievements with a difficult Week 2 opponent on the immediate horizon.
When redshirt freshman kicker Alex Vega made a late 49-yard field goal to defeat the Grizzlies in Missoula, he put the finishing touch on the first of a challenging six-game stretch to open Cal Poly’s season.
With two-time FCS national champion Montana now in the rearview mirror, the No. 18 Mustangs (1-0) turn their attention to Pac-12 Conference opponent Arizona State. The Sun Devils lost their high profile season opener against Texas A&M last week and return home to face Cal Poly at 8:07 p.m. Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
Arizona State has won 16 consecutive home openers and was a popular pick nationally to contend for a conference championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff this fall.
While the first week of the college football season featured two FCS teams — Portland State and South Dakota State — upsetting Power 5 schools, Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh appreciates the challenge waiting in Tempe.
“Arizona State is a completely different beast,” Walsh said. “No offense to any of the other FCS schools that won, but the reality is we’re playing a team that was a preseason pick to possibly win the Pac-12 South, which is as tough a conference as you get.”
The Sun Devils (0-1) returned 16 starters from last year’s team that finished 10-3 overall and defeated Duke in the Sun Bowl. Under fourth-year head coach Todd Graham, Arizona State has won 10 games each of the past two seasons and won 16 of its 20 games at home.
The defensive-minded Graham, who was the 2013 Pac-12 coach of the year, highlighted several self-inflicted miscues that contributed to the Sun Devils’ 38-17 loss to the Aggies.
There were the six penalties, including two roughing the punter calls; the five fumbles, two of them lost; and the nine sacks allowed on senior quarterback Mike Bercovici.
“I really think that game is going to define who we are,” Graham said. “… Your true character gets exposed and I come out of that game feeling really confident because most of the things I’ve seen on film can be corrected.”
Playing on the road for the second straight week, the Mustangs enter their first matchup against an active member of the Pac-12 excited to play in front of more than 60,000 fans.
“It’s gonna be nuts,” sophomore linebacker R.J. Mazolewski said. “It’s a big-time school. We’re gonna go in there and play our best and have a great time hopefully.”
The big crowd and Pac-12 Network TV audience will likely see a heavy dose of Cal Poly senior quarterback Chris Brown, who rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown against Montana. He also threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to senior Roland Jackson Jr. on a well-timed fade route.
Brown was the catalyst in the Mustangs’ 330 rushing yards on 76 attempts.
“It’s very, very different than what we normally face,” Graham said of Cal Poly’s triple-option offense. “We’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at them and working hard to get prepared and also just really focusing on us and getting better as well.”
Texas A&M capped a 21-point fourth quarter with two touchdowns in the final four minutes to pull away from then-No. 15 Arizona State. The Aggies limited Sun Devils senior D.J. Foster to 61 yards on nine touches, a relatively low total for a player with more than 4,100 all-purpose yards in his career.
A preseason candidate for the Maxwell Award — given annually to the top FBS player in college football — Foster moved to receiver this offseason after spending three years at running back. Entering this season Foster was the only active FBS player with more than 2,000 rushing yards and 1,500 receiving yards in his career.
“We’re gonna go fight the fight and see what happens,” Walsh said. “On any given night, you know, in college football anything can happen. But what we’re really looking for is improvement against a very athletic Arizona State team.”