The Cal Poly football team is playing its second straight FBS opponent today — the back-to-back nature being a unique challenge in itself — but the Mustangs could hardly get more differing offensive styles from Fresno State and Colorado State.
Before a second-half comeback led by third-stringer-turned-starting-quarterback Chris Brown, Cal Poly struggled mightily in a 41-25 loss to the Bulldogs.
That was against a spread attack that substitutes short passes for its run game and just one week prior set Mountain West Conference records for pass attempts and completions.
The Rams (0-2), who the Mustangs (1-1) play today at 12:30 p.m. in Fort Collins, Colo., have been anemic on offense while blowing two fourth-quarter leads to start the season, but in principle, Colorado State is a smashmouth running team.
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Second-year head coach Jim McElwain was the offensive coordinator at Alabama before being hired to run the Rams.
He’s brought the ideals of the Crimson Tide’s power running game, and those ideals could turn into reality if Cal Poly cannot adapt.
“They’re going to be multiple in formation,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “They’re going to shift their tight ends all over the place. You better line up right because if you don’t, they’re going to out-man you, and you’re going to be a gap short.
“So we have to get lined up, and we have to be able to play fast and stop the run and not let the ball be thrown over our heads.”
This will be the second time Cal Poly has faced FBS opponents consecutively since Walsh became head coach in 2009. In his first year, the Mustangs played at Ohio and San Jose State in the second and third weeks of the season.
Cal Poly never threatened in a 28-10 loss at Ohio, then took a 9-0 lead over San Jose State before a second-half blocked field goal doomed the Mustangs to an eventual 19-9 defeat.
Cal Poly had its first and only victory over an FBS opponent in the Walsh era in a 24-22 win at Wyoming last season. That victory was part of a 7-0 run to start the season.
Having already taken one loss this year to Fresno State, it’s clear the Mustangs — ranked No. 14 in the two major FCS polls this week — have plenty of work to do to make a return trip to the playoffs after getting a bye into the second round last season.
“It’s a wake-up call,” senior safety Alex Hubbard said. “We thought we were somewhere that we’re not. They put us in our place. It’s as simple as that. We thought we were better than we were in the first half. We were too soft. Gotta bring it.
“We’re a physical defense. We stop the run. That’s what we do. So, when they run the ball, we’re gonna be there for them.”
Run defense has traditionally been the strength of the Cal Poly defense under Walsh.
The Mustangs have finished ranked among the top 33 FCS teams in the nation in run defense each of the past three seasons.
As Colorado State tries to fix an offense that ranks next to last in the Mountain West and among the depths of the FBS in total offense and third-down conversions, the Rams might be just as concerned about Cal Poly’s offense.
Last season, Colorado State was baffled by in-state rival Air Force’s triple-option, which McElwain likened to that of Cal Poly.
In a 42-21 victory, the Falcons racked up 459 rushing yards, averaged 6.9 yards per carry and converted eight of 12 third downs.
As the option has evolved each season under Walsh from a primarily under-center formation to one that plays out of the shotgun just as frequently, it has made the Mustangs a more valuable opponent with respect to preparing for Air Force than would transitioning FBS team Georgia Southern or ACC member Georgia Tech, which both play under center.
“We have a foundation on how not to do it from last year, so I guess that’s good,” McElwain quipped at the team’s weekly news conference. “These guys are more like Air Force in that there’s a lot of multiple formation. They do a lot.
“The actual principles of the dive are there, but they aren’t, say, Georgia Tech where they sat in that, Georgia Southern has just there in that and not deviated. I think what these guys and Air Force have done is expanded it through formation and some of their players.”
But Cal Poly might not find the blueprint to the Rams’ strategy against the option just by breaking out last year’s film from the Air Force game.
The Rams also play a defensive front similar to Fresno State’ 3-4, and the Bulldogs limited the Mustangs to just 1.09 yards per carry in the first half and just 4 of 15 on third-down conversions for the game.
“Defensively, they could try to emulate what Fresno State did,” Walsh said, “and Fresno did do some good things, but also, from playing against them, we learned some things, too.”
Cal Poly suffered several injuries last week, including former starting quarterback Vince Moraga for the season with an ACL and meniscus tear, and could be without starting defensive end Wesley Flowers this week.
Senior slotback Cole Stanford reaggravated his ankle injury against the Bulldogs, and middle linebacker
Nick Dzubnar was in and out of the lineup with injury early in the Fresno State game.
Today figures to be another physical contest where the Mustangs will again be at an athletic disadvantage, but being overmatched physically doesn’t seem to be weighing on players.
“It’s beautiful,” Hubbard said. “To me, it’s a beautiful challenge. We get to elevate ourselves to another level. See where we’re at. We gotta get better, obviously, after last week.”