Last season, Flagstaff, Ariz., was just the final pit stop on the Cal Poly football team’s road to a Big Sky Conference title in its inaugural year in the league and its first FCS playoff berth since 2008.
To Northern Arizona, though, the Mustangs’ 42-34 victory in the regular-season finale last November was more than just a date on a scheduled tour. It was more like a train derailing.
The defeat knocked the Lumberjacks out of the title race and out of the playoffs altogether.
And there’s motivation left over from that loss to fuel today’s trip to San Luis Obispo.
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“You don’t have to say anything about this game,” said Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Sauers, whose team visits Cal Poly tonight at 6:05. “Our last game of the year last year had championship implications for us. It kept us out of everything. It kept us out of the playoffs, and I thought they really came in and took it to us that day.
“Our football program understands the magnitude of this game without having to say anything.”
Winner took all in last year’s matchup, and — even though nothing is guaranteed for the victor of this year’s battle — for the loser, the consequences could be similar.
The Mustangs (3-4, 2-1 Big Sky) and Lumberjacks (5-2, 3-1 Big Sky) are already one conference loss behind leaders Eastern Washington and Montana State. One more defeat would seriously damage their hopes of a conference title, and with the season winding down, both teams need to pile up wins to build their résumés for an at-large playoff berth.
Even Montana, which beat Cal Poly 21-14 in overtime last week, has a conference loss. Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said the conference title could go to a two-loss team, but it does no good to operate with that notion.
“We’re in a situation here, in Northern Arizona it’s the same thing, Montana’s saying the same thing,” Walsh said. “It wouldn’t be a good thing to lose a game.
“Each week, we need to win. We gave away an opportunity last week, and it’s unfortunate, but we’re ready to atone for it.”
It will be a clash of similar styles. Cal Poly leads the nation in rushing with 287.3 yards per game. Northern Arizona features running back Zach Bauman, the leading rusher in the Big Sky.
The Lumberjacks also allow just 351.9 yards of total offense per game, a figure that ranks them second in the conference and 33rd among FCS programs.
Part of that defensive success is due to Bauman and the offense churning yardage, and tonight’s game could come down to which offense is able to win the battle for time of possession, an area where the Mustangs’ triple option aims to excel.
“They played us tough all year,” Cal Poly senior tackle Giovanni Sani said. “They did a lot of different things on defense to try to stop the option, but just like us, they try to use their offense and their defense together to control the game. They control the game with their offense, and then we’re not on the field.
“It’s definitely always a key for us to control the ball. Our defense is stellar, but if we can get rolling, it just makes it that much easier because then they’re fresh, and they can do their job much better.”
The bottom line for the Mustangs is putting points on the board. Cal Poly came away from the heartbreaking loss at Montana with the feeling the Mustangs had dominated the game.
They lost because the two touchdowns they scored were not enough to overcome two crucial special-teams blunders.
Another emphasis in this week’s practice for Walsh was to press upon his offense the importance of scoring enough to offset the team’s mistakes.
Northern Arizona determined as much from watching the Montana-Cal Poly game film, and Sauers also believes the game will be won and lost on the scoreboard.
“Probably as important is, how each drive terminates,” Sauers said. “Is it with scores? Time of possession is an indicator of execution. … In the end, once you get down there, are you coming away with points?”