It took 53 years to get the Cal Poly and San Diego football teams on the same field at the same time again.
The third time around? Not so difficult.
After facing the Toreros for the first time in 1959, the Mustangs hosted the nonscholarship FCS program to open last year and will do the same today when the Cal Poly season kicks off at 4:05 p.m. at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
It’s the first time the Mustangs have played the same opponent to start back-to-back seasons since 1999, when Cal Poly opened at Northern Arizona as part of a two-game home-and-home series swept by the Lumberjacks.
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The rarity has only occurred four times since 1967, the last of five straight seasons Cal Poly opened the schedule against San Francisco State’s now defunct football program.
So, while both schools strayed away from each other for so long, they’ll each be very familiar in this matchup since both squads have returned large chunks of contributors from successful 2012 campaigns.
Despite a head coaching change, not much else is different with the Toreros.
Ron Caragher, who succeeded Jim Harbaugh with the Toreros in 2007, left for San Jose State, but many key coaches and players returned.
Defensive coordinator Dale Lindsey was promoted to head coach. Offensive coordinator Tanner Engstrand stuck around to call plays for the second straight season, his eighth with the program.
And quarterback Mason Mills and main receiving target Sam Hoekstra and the top three rushers also return from a year ago.
In all, 14 starters return from a Toreros team that finished 8-3 and tied for the Pioneer League title despite opening the season with a 41-14 loss in San Luis Obispo.
“I don’t know that there’ll be a great deal of difference,” Lindsey said. “We won eight games. No reason to make a lot of changes. Why fix it if it’s not broken yet?
“We’ve added some ideas and wrinkles, but at the same time, we’ve tried to do what the program has the past eight years, represent the University of San Diego with some class.”
Lindsey, a former NFL linebacker in the late 1960s and early ’70s, has coached at nearly every level of the game, including stints as an assistant with eight NFL teams.
He was the defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers from 2002-03, and while serving as linebackers coach with the Washington Redskins from 2004-06, some blamed a spat with LaVar Arrington that became public for the star linebacker’s release from the team.
Lindsey’s NFL connections helped him land first-year defensive line coach Bryant Robinson, a former Fresno State star who played 14 seasons in the NFL and started at nose tackle on the Arizona Cardinals’ Super Bowl team in 2009.
This season marks the first that the Pioneer League champion will be awarded an automatic berth to the FCS playoffs, which expands to 24 teams from 20 last year.
Cal Poly is ranked 11th by the coaches and 14th by the media in FCS preseason polls and was 9-3 last season, earning a share of the Big Sky Conference title in its first year in the league and making its first postseason appearance since 2008.
With a veteran squad that returns nine defensive starters from the thirdstingiest defense in the Big Sky, the Mustangs have high hopes of returning to the playoffs, and this game could prove to be a pivotal matchup by the end of the season.
“This game does have playoff implications for a first-week game,” Walsh said, “but most importantly for us is to see where we are as a football team.”
The Cal Poly offense returns seven players who started games a season ago, but having to replace a 1,500-yard rusher and a quarterback who led the Mustangs’ triple option to the highest passing efficiency rating in the nation, there are a couple of big question marks.
Junior slotback Kristaan Ivory, who rushed for 728 yards and eight touchdowns last season, will try to help make up for the loss of Deonte Williams, whose 1,547 yards rank as the second-highest single-season total in program history.
Former quarterback Andre Broadous is tied for third all-time in school history with 30 career rushing touchdowns. A threat in his own right, Broadous was an expert conducting Cal Poly’s option, and he’ll be replaced by another player whose strength is in distribution.
Fifth-year junior Vince Moraga won the four-way quarterback position battle which raged evenly throughout spring drills and most of fall camp.
Sophomore Air Force transfer Dano Graves will be the second-string option with sophomore Chris Brown and redshirt freshman Tanner Trosin rounding out the depth chart.
But Walsh has reiterated that it’s Moraga’s job to lose at this point.
“Vince is an extremely smart quarterback, and he really sees the game through the eyes of quarterback coach Juston Wood and myself. The decisions he makes are the decisions he should make.
“He’s not as fast as Andre Broadous, but extremely quick. He can cause some defenses some problems.”
Last season’s matchup was close for three quarters.
Going into the final quarter leading 20-14, Broadous hit fullback Akaninyene Umoh for a 7-yard touchdown pass, and the game turned quickly.
On San Diego’s first two drives of the quarter, Mills threw interceptions to linebacker Johnny Millard and safety Alex Hubbard, who both return this season, in a span of seven plays, and Broadous threw another touchdown pass to Williams.
Then the quarterback ran in his second of the night to complete the blowout.
“I think our players, when they look at the tape of Cal Poly, have a healthy respect for the team they’re playing,” Lindsey said. “They realize the caliber of players they’re going to be playing. They have to come up and play their best or we’re going to have a long day.”