The Cal Poly football team might not yet be mathematically eliminated from achieving all of its Big Sky Conference title and playoff aspirations, but at this point, the fate of those goals is largely out of the Mustangs’ control.
A fictional championship, however, is still for the taking.
Cal Poly (4-5, 3-2 Big Sky) has already beaten San Diego and UC Davis this season, and the Mustangs could make it a clean sweep against California FCS programs with a victory over Sacramento State at Alex G. Spanos Stadium tonight at 6:05.
Beating the Hornets (4-5, 3-2 Big Sky) would make Cal Poly the undisputed champion among its in-state peers.
“This is a state that we recruit,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. Only seven players on the Cal Poly roster come from out of state.
“We’re going to recruit against Sacramento, San Diego and UC Davis. To be 3-0 in the state of California, that would be great for us.”
The Hornets were the only team that kept the Mustangs from such a claim last season. Sacramento State’s 35-29 victory also ended Cal Poly’s 7-0 unbeaten streak to start the season and turned out to be the lone blemish that kept the Mustangs from claiming an outright Big Sky title.
It also signified the return of a rivalry that had gone off track.
Though Cal Poly and Sacramento State never battled over a trophy like the Mustangs and UC Davis or gave their game a nickname like the Hornets and Aggies, the programs played annually for 24 years starting in 1983.
Then, for a five-year span, Cal Poly and Sacramento State met just once, a 38-19 Mustangs victory in 2009.
The overall record between the two standing even at 16-16 this season, the rivalry received a boost when Cal Poly joined the Big Sky Conference for football prior to the 2012 season, and the expansion, which included four other schools from the former Great West Conference, led Big Sky officials to implement an unbalanced schedule.
Each Big Sky team now faces a stable of three regional rivals every year and a rotation of the remaining 10 conference schools fills out the rest of the eight-game Big Sky schedule.
The Mustangs were partnered with UC Davis, with whom they contest the Battle for the Golden Horeshoe, Northern Arizona and Sacramento State.
The game with the Hornets has yet to approach the emotion of the rivalry with the Aggies, but it is sure to only heat up between the only two California State University campuses with FCS programs.
With clashing academic reputations, Cal Poly and Sacramento State seems to have less in common than the Mustangs and Aggies — who share horse mascots and agricultural roots — but on the gridiron, the Hornets are having a very familiar season so far, right down to their identical overall and conference records coming into the game.
“It’s great that we play another California State University school,” Walsh said. “Our guys know each other.
“The reality is, both teams are 3-2 in the Big Sky, and both teams are very similar. The team that wins will be all alone in third with a chance of finishing in second place.
The outcome of the game could be decided by the matchup between Cal Poly’s defense and Sacramento State’s offense.
The Mustangs have been particularly stingy recently, allowing their past four opponents to an average of fewer than 11 points per game.
Though Cal Poly is just 2-2 in that span, one of the losses came in overtime at Montana only after the Grizzlies tied the score with a touchdown in the final seconds of regulation. The next week, Northern Arizona stole a fourth-quarter victory with a kick return for a touchdown to win the game.
Thanks in large part to the defense, the Mustangs could have easily still been unbeaten in conference play and considered a shoo-in for playoff contention instead of hanging on for dear like.
“Defensively, they play very disciplined, sound defense,” Hornets head coach Marshall Sperbeck said. “They kind of wait for you to make a mistake, and I think it’s a good recipe for success.”
Something will have to give against Sacramento State quarterback Garrett Safron.
Coming off a game in which he accounted for 505 yards of total offense and six touchdowns, Safron is among the national FCS leaders in several categories.
A sophomore who torched Cal Poly for 303 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 31-for-38 effort last season, Safron averages 23.8 completions per game and has 22 passing touchdowns. Both figures rank eighth in the FCS. Completing 64.1 percent of his passes, Safron ranks 24th.
“They put the ball in their quarterback’s hands and let him make the reads,” Mustangs senior cornerback Bijon Samoodi said. “He kind of scrambles around and takes what he can find. He has receivers that can make plays, too. So, he trusts them.
“Last week, he was able to make plays with his feet but also drop back and get the plays to his receivers. We have to stop him from being able to get outside the pocket and being able to scramble.”