A lot has changed since the last time Rob Smith was in San Luis Obispo. Namely, a bunch of names.
The Cal Poly football team played in Mustang Stadium back in 2001, and Smith — the third-year head coach leading Humboldt State into Alex G. Spanos Stadium to play the Mustangs on Saturday — was coaching Division II Western Washington.
It was Rich Ellerson’s first season coaching Cal Poly, which is now in its second year under Tim Walsh, who was at Portland State at that time.
Though Smith’s name might have been forgotten locally in the nine years that followed, this fact shouldn’t be overlooked: Western Washington came away with a 17-9 victory.
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“Cal Poly scored on the first play of the game,” Smith recalled, “a little bubble screen, and that was all they got.
We had a very good team at Western Washington. Our QB was a Division II player-of-the-year finalist. We had a safety in camp with the Steelers. It was a good football team.”
The Mustangs had to take it personally. They haven’t lost to a Division II team since.
The No. 25-ranked Football Championship Subdivision program in the preseason coaches’ poll going into this season, Cal Poly is 8-0 against Division II foes since the loss, hammering opponents by an average of more than 40 points per game.
Only one of those teams has scored more than 14 points against the Mustangs and nearly half of them were shut out.
Three of those wins came against Humboldt State, which has lost eight of nine against Cal Poly dating back to 1971.
Though so much has changed — and as Smith is eager to point out, none of his current players had anything to do with the 2001 Western Washington upset — could Humboldt State have the best chance yet to give Cal Poly a game?
Walsh knows how dangerous a Smith-coached team can be. Western Washington gave Walsh’s Portland State team a 37-20 scare in the 2000 season opener, one week before the Vikings went on to upset Hawaii 45-20.
“This team is going to be very well coached, and that probably concerns me, too,” Walsh said. “Coach Smith has always had his teams ready to play. He wins a lot of games, and I’m sure they’re coming here with the mindset of creating a big upset.”
In his 17 years leading Western Washington, Smith racked up a 109-62-1 record.
He’s just 7-14 in two seasons at Humboldt State, but the Lumberjacks went from two wins in his first season to five this past year.
Also improving is the Humboldt State defensive front, which picked up Oregon transfer Andrew Iupati in the offseason.
Iupati is the younger brother of Mike Iupati, a former Idaho guard and first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Andrew Iupati, is a 6-foot-1, 310-pound junior defensive tackle that leads a front four that also includes three seniors.
“We feel he’s a quality player and anxious to see what he adds to our defense,” Smith said. “Iupati missed the second scrimmage with injury but fortunately, he transferred in mid-year last year.
“We really felt then that our defensive line was arguably our most improved position on our team.”
On the other side of the ball, Cal Poly has experienced plenty of instability along its offensive line in the past year.
The Mustangs failed to start one game last season with its ideal five at offensive line as players up and down the roster took turns missing time.
In training camp this season, minor injuries have prevented several starters from playing in Cal Poly’s scrimmage and getting first-team repetitions in practice.
One result was two banged-up quarterbacks. Battling for the starting job, both Tony Smith and Andre Broadous missed time at practice in the past two weeks after suffering leg injuries during the scrimmage.
Walsh said all of the offensive linemen should be available to play Saturday — aside from senior tackle Art Munoz, who has yet to put on pads since breaking his leg last year.
Cal Poly’s trouble keeping linemen healthy could make the matchup with Iupati and the Lumberjacks’ defensive front the one to watch.
“The transfer from the University of Oregon is going to be a load inside,” Walsh said. “We’ve seen him play when he was in junior college. He’s good player. He’s a Pac-10 player.”