With hopes of a conference title and playoff berth on life support, tonight’s matchup with rival UC Davis comes at a perfect time for the Cal Poly football team.
For this week, the Mustangs can take their minds off dwindling goals and place them squarely on something fully within their control — trying to win their second straight Battle for the Golden Horseshoe.
“We do our team goals at the beginning of the year, and there’s three things we like to do,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, “and obviously that’s one we can still accomplish, for sure. So, importance for this game even goes up as far as what we’re trying to accomplish in 2013.”
Walsh was on the losing end of his first three matchups against the Aggies before bouncing back in a 28-20 victory last year in a rivalry that spans 38 meetings dating to 1939.
The Mustangs (3-5, 2-2 Big Sky Conference) have played UC Davis (3-6, 3-2 Big Sky) more than any other team aside from Fresno State, which they’ve battled 43 times over the years but just twice since 1985.
The series with the Aggies is the closest thing the football program has to the caustic rivalry with UC Santa Barbara in the athletic department’s Big West Conference-sponsored sports.
“It’s a big week,” senior linebacker Johnny Millard said. “No matter where you are in conference or what your record is, you circle this game every year.”
Cal Poly and UC Davis often go after the same players in recruiting, and in recent years, their late-season matchups have had conference-title and playoff implications on top of possession of the Golden Horeshoe, which has been contested annually between the teams since 2004.
Since the advent of the trophy, the Aggies hold a 5-4 advantage in the series.
UC Davis wants the trophy back, and that’s a concept first-year Aggies head coach Ron Gould has become acquainted with since taking over after a 15-year stint as an offensive assistant at Cal.
“I know the players are excited about the rivalry and so forth,” Gould said.
“I’m just learning what it’s about. I just know I have a tremendous amount of respect for coach Walsh and his team and the things they’ve been able to do.”
On the field, the Aggies had a rough start to the Gould era. UC Davis lost its first four games of the season, and after a poor performance in the opener, four-year starting quarterback Randy Wright was benched for three games.
The Aggies turned back to Wright by the fifth game and have won three of their past five with him back at the helm.
UC Davis has combined a newfound potent running game with junior City College of San Francisco walk-on transfer running back Gabe Manzanares with the savvy of Wright to give a varied look of old and new that had Walsh praising Gould and his staff this week.
“They changed, and they changed quarterbacks,” Walsh said, “and they got better after the game when they brought back the veteran, Randy Wright. They went back to doing some of the things they’ve done in the past.
“They’ve gone back more to putting the quarterback under center and running some of the run plays that they’ve ran in the past. It’s a combination of a couple of offenses right now.”
As for the Mustangs offense, Walsh will turn back to sophomore Chris Brown, who started three games after Vince Moraga was lost to a season-ending knee injury against Fresno State but was sidelined in favor of sophomore Air Force transfer Dano Graves after being injured in an ugly 24-10 loss to Yale.
Graves has started the past three games, but the former Folsom High standout suffered an upper-leg injury in last week’s 17-13 home loss to Northern Arizona and is listed as the emergency quarterback today.
Redshirt freshman Tanner Trosin, another Folsom product, will back up Brown in Davis.
But the emphasis could be more on the defenses.
In its past three losses, Cal Poly is averaging only 12.3 points per game. UC Davis has averaged 9.6 points in its six defeats.
The Mustangs’ past two defeats have each been decided by a single score. A 21-14 loss at Montana was decided in overtime after the Grizzlies tied the score with seconds remaining in regulation.
Losses are losses, but the Cal Poly defense is keeping the Mustangs in games when the offense has struggled and injuries have continued to mount.
For the Mustangs, the strength starts up front, where senior defensive end Andrew Alcaraz has a team-high seven pass deflections, and senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz has four quarterback hurries, five sacks and is tied for fourth on the team with 48 tackles.
Grosz had a team-high nine tackles along with two quarterback hurries in last week’s loss to Northern Arizona.
“The guy plays with a tremendous amount of passion,” Gould said of Grosz. “He’s scary. The guy’s scary to watch on film. He disrupts double teams. You can’t single-block him.”