Gavin Cooper came up with the football and found himself all alone, basking in the glow of the bright lights of Bulldog Stadium, being serenaded by the two solid sections of Cal Poly fans and the thunderous silence of the many more in red.
Cooper, a Mustangs junior defensive end, had just executed a strip and fumble recovery that could have allowed Cal Poly to score in the final seconds of the second quarter and head into halftime ahead of heavily favored Fresno State.
The score never panned out, and the Mustangs (3-2) went on to lose 38-17 after being outscored 17-0 in the second half, but Cooper was right at home in the spotlight last Saturday.
“It was great,” Cooper said. “You just feel like a gladiator out there, with the people looking at you. I love playing to the crowd. Away games are my specialty.
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“The senior guys, most of us, all of us actually, played in Wisconsin, so it’s nothing we haven’t seen. We’re composed in big stadiums.”
He’ll be in front of another rabid crowd today, from what would appear to be an unlikely source: Old Dominion (3-2), a second-year Football Championship Subdivision program that was basically started from scratch in 2005.
Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh has done everything to prepare for the game, including handing out newspaper clippings to players to inform them about a road environment he expects to rival that of the Bulldogs, whose 30,769 for this past Saturday’s game was the second most the Mustangs had ever played before.
An announced 80,709 watched Wisconsin beat Cal Poly 36-35 in overtime in 2008.
The Monarchs have sold out all 19,782 seats at Foreman Field for all 10 home games in the short history of their current program. Prior to going 9-2 in 2009, the university last played football in 1941, more than 20 years before it transitioned from a two-year to a four-year institution.
There’s some doubt as to whether the sellouts will continue with 500 student tickets unclaimed because of a fall break heading into this week. But with a reported season ticket waiting list of 1,500 people in the Norfolk, Va., area, any panic might be overblown.
“From all of the coaches I’ve talked to that have played there,” Walsh said, “they say get ready for a couple of delay of games because of the crowd.”
Because of its football program’s infancy, Old Dominion surely does not have the name recognition of other top FCS programs. So, Walsh handed out copies of a Boston Globe report highlighting the Monarchs as one of a few mushrooming programs leading an FCS renaissance on the East Coast.
The goal was to get his veteran players to separate Old Dominion from the class of first-time opponents Cal Poly has throttled in recent years, teams such as Dixie State, North Carolina Central and Iona.
“They’re probably the best FCS team that we’ve played this year athletically,” Walsh said.
The Monarchs are coming off a win over Gardner-Webb (2-3), which beat Football Bowl Subdivision Akron in overtime. And Old Dominion hung tough before losing 21-17 to No. 4 William & Mary (4-1), which beat defending FCS champion Villanova last weekend. Cal Poly players seem to have noticed.
“It doesn’t matter when their program came out,” Cooper said, “because we’re watching them based on this season and what they’ve done with their team.”
Old Dominion also has a healthy respect for the No. 14 Mustangs, who appear to be a couple wins away from returning home from a brutal five-game road trip with FCS playoff hopes still intact.
Though the Cal Poly offense has been limited behind an injury-plagued offensive line and a three-headed quarterback at the helm, it’s beginning to look more stable now that sophomore Andre Broadous has established himself as the starter.
And the defense is allowing slightly more than 21 points to non-FBS opponents.
“I compare this team to William & Mary,” Monarchs head coach Bobby Wilder said. “I think talent wise, they’re as good as William & Mary, which is going to present a tremendous challenge to our football team.
“I think they’ll be a playoff team this year. I think they’re that good.”