At the end of the Cal Poly football team’s last practice of the season Thursday, Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh had his regulars either watching or refereeing while the scout teams dueled at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
One of the things Walsh wanted his starters to focus on was the youthful enthusiasm shown by the first- and second-year players when they finally got their chance to go full speed in the real-game venue.
The scrimmage resurrected a training camp feel — one where an 0-5 road record, a penchant for second-half swoons and a current three-game losing streak didn’t seem nearly as important as driving a teammate mercilessly into the ground in front of coaches.
The collection of redshirts had little use for Cal Poly’s current state of affairs as the Mustangs (4-6) head to Weber State (6-4) for today’s season finale. All the downers about this season couldn’t possibly weigh on them when playing time for next season was potentially at stake.
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Walsh was hoping the reckless abandon would be contagious and motivate a team that seemingly has just one goal left to play for: Spoiling the playoff hopes of the Wildcats one season after Weber State was a source of tears for arguably the best Mustangs team in program history.
And it seemed to be working.
“It takes a lot of the pressure off because nothing to lose,” junior receiver Dominique Johnson said. “We can just come out and play football just because we love the game, and that’s what it’s about now, having fun and just being enthusiastic.
“We have a chance to spoil their season just like they did to Cal Poly last year.”
Johnson — a national offensive player of the week honoree after he caught 13 passes for 273 yards and five touchdowns last week, all career highs — was still at UCLA this time last year, but he’s seen last season’s game film.
Led by an unstoppable record-breaking offense looking to make a deep playoff run and coming off a near upset at Wisconsin, Cal Poly was shocked when the Wildcats stormed to a 49-35 victory in the first Division I home playoff game in Mustangs history.
That game ended the careers of a dream team of sorts, including future NFL receiver Ramses Barden, four-year starters James Noble, Stephen Field and Tre’dale Tolver and second-year transfers Ryan Mole and Jonathan Dally.
Now, Cal Poly has a chance to do something similar.
No. 19 Weber State is hanging on to slim playoff hopes.
The Wildcats are second in the Big Sky Conference behind No. 3 Montana (10-0). They have four losses, but they’ve also come close to upsetting two Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, losing by one at Colorado State and by six at Wyoming.
This game could determine whether Weber State is awarded an at-large berth to the 16-team FCS playoff bracket.
“I think we should,” Wildcats coach Ron McBride said. “I don’t think there’s any question because of the difficulty of our schedule, number one. I think we probably had the second most difficult schedule,” in the FCS.
But Cal Poly could end all of that optimism with a victory, one that would keep Weber State from securing the minimum seven Division I wins strongly recommended by the NCAA for at-large playoff consideration.
“They feel like if they win, they’ll have a really good chance,” Walsh said. “I think they feel like they probably need to win significantly.“My hope is Cal Poly has more points than Weber State has (today).”
That will be a big challenge for a team that just gave up 50 points to an effective passing team last week. The Mustangs could not stop South Dakota on the Coyotes’ first eight drives in Cal Poly’s two-point loss at home.
The Wildcats’ offense is off the pace of last year’s team, which ranked seventh in the FCS in total offense, but Weber State returns several key players who were huge in the win over Cal Poly last season.
Running back Trevyn Smith rushed for 137 yards and scored three touchdowns against the Mustangs, and receiver Tim Toone caught a game-high 10 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Cameron Higgins passed for 399 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score.
The key could be Higgins. He hasn’t shown a desire to run, but if he gets time in the pocket or spots a weakness in Cal Poly’s pass defense, he’ll likely find a way to move the ball.
“If you get a quarterback that sits back there and for a while, then it’s kind of hard, the coverage kind of breaks down,” Mustangs senior safety David Fullerton said. “But if you can’t cover anyone, obviously, you’ve got nothing. We’ve got the guys to do it. We’ve done it before. We’ve had great games. We’ve shut people down to 14 points. We just have to put it all together.”