CHENEY, Wa. — As a matchup looms large against the team that gave Deonte Williams his first collegiate break, it’s a lesson he learned there that he needs his current teammates to embrace.
Following Saturday’s 34-17 loss at Eastern Washington, the second straight defeat after a 7-0 start, the Mustangs (7-2, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) will host Idaho State this week.
A win over the Bengals (1-8, 0-6 Big Sky), who have been outscored by an average of 31.4 points per game, could set up a showdown with the first-place Lumberjacks (8-1, 6-0 Big Sky) with a share of the conference title on the line in the regular-season finale.
As a true freshman at Northern Arizona in 2008, Williams was the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year after rushing for 950 yards and 12 touchdowns.
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Now a senior star for Cal Poly, Williams got that opportunity only when then-Lumberjacks junior starter Alex Henderson went down with a knee injury early in the year.
“I was young one time, and I had to step up to play,” Williams said. “You’re here for a reason, and the other guy goes down, you’ve got to be ready to step up.”
It’s a message he’ll be preaching to multiple offensive linemen who’ve been pressed into the duty of blocking for Williams and the rest of Cal Poly’s runners.
Redshirt freshman tackle Weston Walker, a former Atascadero High standout, has already made one start after experienced tackles Mike Freeman and Karl Winkelman were lost for the year.
Redshirt freshman Stephen Sippel is likely to make his first start at center after senior starter
Geoff Hyde went down with a knee injury in the second half against the Eagles.
Including guard Kyle Zottneck, who’s started for most of the season, the Mustangs’ offensive line figures to include two juniors and three freshmen for the rest of the season.
“As a senior and leader on the team,” Williams said, “We’ve got to pick everybody’s head up and let them know we have a lot left to play for.
“Certain guys just got to step up. It’s as simple as that. Just step up to the plate. So we’ve just got to encourage people to be ready. They need to be to help us win.”
The losses of Winkelman and Freeman correlate with Cal Poly’s recent losing slide, and without Hyde, the team failed to pick up a score on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line in a crucial moment against Eastern Washington.
The Mustangs have lost their three most senior offensive linemen, and Hyde might just be the most significant.
A part-time starter since his true freshman season, the Anaheim Esperanza High product was the unquestioned leader of an offensive line that had helped the Mustangs rank as the third-leading rushing team in the country with more than 320 yards per game coming into Saturday.
The extent of his injury was not known after the game, but Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said it did not look good.
“Geoff Hyde is the catalyst of our offensive line,” Walsh said. “To not have him in the game is tough enough. We’ll see how bad it is when we get back. Hopefully, it will be a thing where in one or two weeks we can get him back. I sure wouldn’t want it to be the end of his career, because he’s played too well to get us to where we are for him not to be there.”
Walsh refused to blame offensive injuries for the recent struggles, saying every team has to deal with them at some point.
He did acknowledge that it’s tough to lose three bodies on the offensive line, a position where the Mustangs did not have much established depth to begin with.
Walsh also acknowledged that Cal Poly has already effectively entered the playoffs. With two more games left in the regular season, the Mustangs aren’t likely to get back in the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2008 if they don’t win out.
“There’s no question we can’t lose again,” Walsh said. “But really, what I want to see us do is beat Idaho State. And when we beat Idaho State, then the last game has a tremendous amount of meaning. It has more meaning than the game we just played because it still gets us co-champions and 7-1 in the Big Sky in our very first year. It gives us an opportunity to play for the conference championship.”