Though every game the rest of the season carries equal importance to the Cal Poly football team’s hopes of a Big Sky Conference title and berth in the FCS playoffs, today’s showdown with first-place Montana State might mean the most to spectators.
The No. 8 Bobcats (6-2, 4-0 Big Sky) are the only thing standing between the Mustangs (5-3, 4-1 Big Sky) and their debut in the national polls. A victory for Cal Poly could tie as many as six teams atop the conference in the loss column.
Adding more intrigue to the matchup is the fact that both teams have yet to face each other since Cal Poly joined the Big Sky Conference.
In a quirk of the rotating 13-team Big Sky schedule, when Cal Poly faces the Bobcats at Alex G. Spanos Stadium today at 6:05 p.m., the Mustangs will have finally faced every conference opponent.
It’s the first time Cal Poly and Montana State have played in nearly 10 years. After the Mustangs moved to Division I in 1994, the Mustangs and Bobcats played nine times between 1995 and 2005 — with Cal Poly taking the last seven game — and haven’t met since.
That means Montana State has yet to face the Mustangs since former head coach Rich Ellerson instituted the triple-option offense in 2007 and certainly hasn’t played against current head coach Tim Walsh’s take on the offense.
Conversely, Cal Poly racked up wins against Montana State during some lean years for the Bobcats, a period ending when the athletic department was caught up in a scandal that saw Montana State athletes accused of a bevy of crimes ranging from cocaine trafficking to murder.
Since then, the Bobcats brought in head coach Rob Ash from Drake in 2007, and Ash has cleaned up the off-the-field incidents and the product on the field. Montana State won at least a share of three straight conference titles from 2010-12 and has the inside track on a fourth championship this season.
This season, the Bobcats have a dangerous offense.
Montana State is fourth in the FCS in scoring at 43.6 points per game and second nationally in pass efficiency (180.7), leading the Big Sky in each category. The Bobcats’ 511 yards of total offense per game ranks sixth in the FCS. Just like Cal Poly, Montana State has won four straight games, and that’s including a 77-37 pounding of UC Davis.
Sophomore quarterback Dakota Prukop’s name is littered all over the national leaders. He’s been responsible for 28 touchdowns in eight games, which is tied for second in the nation, and 11 of those have come on the ground.
In the past five seasons, the Bobcats have emerged from the shadow of in-state rival Montana, a program with seven FCS championship-game appearances since 1995.
“Rob has done a tremendous job there,” Walsh said. “They really have kind of knocked on Montana’s door to take over the state of Montana, and right now this year, they’re definitely in position to take that reign from them. And it’s something they’ve aspired to do for a long time.” That unfamiliarity between the programs could benefit Cal Poly, whose option offense and cut- blocking linemen are tough to prepare against even for seasoned opponents.
In the past two weeks in particular, the Mustangs have worn down opponents in the second half. Cal Poly outscored Sacramento State 49-7 after falling behind the Hornets 17-7 in the first half two weeks ago. Against Montana last week, the Mustangs outscored the Grizzlies 27-7 in the second half.
“It’s the same mentality we’ve had for every opponent, just grind them out,” redshirt freshman offensive tackle Miles Williams said. Offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Saga Tuitele “says it before every game. They don’t want to play us because they never face a team like us. Once we get after their knees and stuff, they’re going to back up off the ball, and they’re going to quit.”
Not only has Montana State not faced Cal Poly, Ash said the Bobcats haven’t prepared for an offense similar to the Mustangs in recent years, partly because of how unique the scheme has become.
Montana State is coming into the game after a bye week, and two full weeks have gone into preparation strictly for Cal Poly, and that’s not all.
“We’ve had Cal Poly on tape, on video for the last couple years since they joined the league,” Ash said.
“We’ve watched them, and we know what kind of offense they run because we’ve watched them on tape. And so we’ve kind of had it in the back of our mind thinking that day’s going to come when we’re going to have to play these guys. It’s not like we just opened up the video and watched them for the very first time here two weeks ago. We have done some things in the offseason to prepare.”