Talk about four-down territory: The Cal Poly football team went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Mustangs’ own 34-yard line earlier this season.
“Any time it comes down to fourth down and a yard or 2,” junior center Stephen Sippel said, “I don’t even look for the punt team to come on. It’s more like, ‘All right, what play are we looking for to pick up the first down.’ ”
Cal Poly is among the nation’s best at converting fourth downs, almost exclusively picking up short yardage needed on quarterback sneaks with junior Chris Brown.
Including the conversion from its own 34-yard line in the first quarter at Northern Arizona three weeks ago, the Mustangs are 10 for 13 on fourth-down attempts this season.
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The 76.9 percent conversion rate leads the Big Sky Conference and ranks sixth in the FCS. The success has essentially turned a 48-percent conversion rate on third down to 57 percent when fourth downs are factored in.
Cal Poly lost 38-35 to the Lumberjacks, but that early conversion was crucial to the continued fourth-down success.
“It started at Northern Arizona,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “For this team in particular, I think it gave them some confidence that we were able to pick up first downs.” That confidence was a missing ingredient last season.
As Cal Poly rotated between Brown and fellow junior Dano Graves at quarterback, the Mustangs still went for a lot of first downs, but they converted only 14 of 23 for a success rate of 61 percent.
“This year,” Sippel said, “the O-line has meshed together. We’ve got an understanding of we’ve got to get 1 yard, we’re going to fight for it, not give up any ground and to keep the drive going. It’s been an overall commitment.”
Part of the turnaround has been Brown’s increased comfort running the offense. He’s started every game this season with Graves as his backup.
An offensive line anchored by Sippel and fellow junior Weston Walker has also come into its own.
“When you’re talking about 1 yard, it becomes a toughness thing,” Walsh said. “Our offensive line is playing tough, and our quarterback is playing tough.
“Stephen and his group are pretty competitive people, and when you challenge competitive people, good things happen.”