Alex Hubbard didn’t know exactly what to expect when Cal Poly football coaches sent him to the computer to watch film of last season’s games.
The junior safety from College of San Mateo had just transferred to the school in the offseason, and by chance, the first video he selected was a doozy for the defensive backfield, a 53-51 triple-overtime loss to Eastern Washington at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“That’s just the game I happened to click,” Hubbard said. “They said, go watch the film. I looked at all the games. I saw Eastern Washington, and I just clicked it. It was crazy.”
Trailing 14-0 after the first quarter, the Mustangs rallied to tie the score at 35 at the end of regulation. The teams traded field goals in overtime. Then they traded two touchdowns apiece. On its touchdown drive in the third overtime, Eastern Washington made the two-point conversion. Cal Poly did not. Game over.
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Hubbard saw the Eagles pass 51 times, completing 35 for 461 yards and six touchdowns.
The Mustangs brought the offense, too. Quarterback Andre Broadous ran for three touchdowns and passed for two more. Deonte Williams and Jake Romanelli also had scoring runs.
And this all came in the penultimate game of the season with both teams already effectively eliminated from playoff contention.
When No. 16 Cal Poly (7-1, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) and No. 7 Eastern Washington (6-2, 5-1 Big Sky) meet in today’s rematch at Roos Stadium in Cheney, Wa., they’ll both be playing for their postseason lives.
The winner will likely remain on track for a fairly secure at-large entry to the 20-team FCS playoff bracket if not a Big Sky Conference championship.
The loser will start to sweat.
Since this game is a nonconference affair, a prescheduled leftover from the Mustangs’ final years in the Great West Conference, a loss wouldn’t hurt either team in the chase for the Big Sky title, but in the event of a tie that might end up being broken by power rankings, a defeat today could be the difference between getting the conference’s automatic entry to the playoffs and having Thanksgiving weekend off.
“It wouldn’t matter if this was a conference game or what it is, a nonconference game,” Eagles head coach Beau Baldwin said. “We’re approaching it the exact same way. It’s not like we’re going in there saying, ‘OK, boys, this is nonconference. We’re going to handle it this way.’
“It means zero in terms of whether it’s conference or nonconference. It’s a big ballgame, and it’s going to be a tough ballgame to prepare for and to battle.”
Though both defenses are much improved statistically over the units that gave up a combined 104 points last season, it could still be an offensive affair.
Cal Poly is 12th in the country with 36.9 points per game. The Mustangs also rank third with 323.4 rushing yards per game.
Though Eastern Washington is only the fifth-highest scoring team in the Big Sky at 30.5 points per game, the Eagles rank 14th in the FCS with 286.5 passing yards per game, and ball-control passing schemes have hurt Cal Poly at times this season.
The Mustangs fell behind by two scores at Weber State while the Wildcats spread the field and advanced with short passes.
Cal Poly came back to beat Weber State with a dominant second half, but in last week’s 35-29 loss at Sacramento State, Hornets quarterback Garrett Saffron was an efficient 31 of 38 for 303 passing yards.
Eastern Washington has the potential to be just as adept. Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said the top three Eagles receivers are NFL-level talents. Led by 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior Brandon Kaufman, both Greg Hurd and Cory Mitchell are 6-2 or taller, ideal height for a possession passing game.
“You have to be very disciplined with your eyes,” Hubbard said, “because they’re doing a lot of movement with their routes, a lot of stems, a lot of sticks, and you’ve got to be able to play the ball. The big receivers, you’ve got to be able to play the ball in the air before they get it to their chest.”
Cal Poly receiver Willie Tucker had an 18-yard touchdown catch against Eastern Washington last season. The score gave the Mustangs a 35-28 lead with 5:06 left in regulation before the Eagles came back to tie the score with a touchdown with 1:51 left.
The sophomore has a four-game streak of touchdown catches coming into today. Unlike Hubbard, he lived through last year’s game and keeps it fresh in his mind for a totally different reason.
“That left a sour taste in our mouth because I felt like we should have won that game,” Tucker said. “We’ve got to come back and punch them in the mouth this week.”