Wake up, everybody.
The Cal Poly football team is suddenly one of the best FCS football teams in the country. So say the past couple of weeks.
With Saturday’s 35-27 victory over No. 8 Montana State, Cal Poly has made it back-to-back games with solid victories over top-10 teams from the perennially powerful state of Montana.
Right now, the unranked Mustangs (6-3, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) are not
only night and day from the team that opened the season 1-3 and averaged 14 points in the first two games. On a five-game win streak where they’re averaging more than 40 points, it’s more like solstice and solstice.
Hyperbole aside, Cal Poly is now tied for the lead in the conference and can win at least a share of the title with victories in its next two games.
“For us and the way we played tonight and the way we’ve played the last five weeks, I’ve got to give so much credit to our coaches and players,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “I stand out here and I get to talk about all the great things that happened. In reality, it happened because the coaches are doing a great job, the players buy into it and our players are playing as hard as any team I’ve ever coached in my 30-something years.”
Perhaps most impressive has been the performance of the Mustangs’ defense.
On Saturday, cornerback Karlton Dennis iced the game with his team-leading third interception of the season, snatching a pick from Bobcats quarterback Dakota Prukop on fourth-and-2 from the Cal Poly 19 with 1:01 left.
Not only did Prukop rank second in the FCS in passing efficiency coming into the game, Montana State (6-3, 4-1 Big Sky) was fourth in the country, averaging 43.6 points per game.
The Mustangs erased a 17-14 halftime deficit to win. The Bobcats scored 10 points in the third quarter but were skunked in the fourth. This after Cal Poly’s defense nearly completely stymied both Montana and Sacramento State in the second half each of the past two weeks, combining to outscore both opponents 62-14 in the third and fourth quarters.
It may have just been a matter of time for the Mustangs defense. After losing Big Sky Co-Defensive Player of the Year Sullivan Grosz, linebacker Johnny Millard and several other contributors from the stingiest defense in the Big Sky last season, Cal Poly had plenty of holes to fill with first-year starters.
“It was just experience really,” said senior linebacker Nick Dzubnar, the nation’s leading tackler. “We had a lot of new guys on the D-line, some new guys in the backfield, and we had a new linebacker. Once guys got experience, and we learned from our mistakes in the first three games, didn’t go so well, I think we’ve been picking it up ever since. Every game we learn from our mistakes. I think if we keep doing that we’re going be a really good defense.”
Dzubnar was one off his career high with 18 tackles. He also had 1.5 sacks, combining with fellow linebacker Burton De Koning on the stop. Nick Moyer had a huge fourth-quarter sack as well. Cornerback Chris Fletcher had nine tackles and nearly made the game-clinching interception just a few plays before Dennis, but dropped the ball during a diving roll.
Offensively, Cal Poly kept rolling.
With 483 yards of total offense, the nation’s leading rushing attack racked up 376 yards. It was the seventh straight game with 480 yards of more of total offense.
Mustangs junior quarterback Chris Brown was responsible for three touchdowns. He ran 29 times for 97 yards and two short scores and was 8-of-11 passing for 107 yards and a
23-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Mitchell.
It was the fourth time this season Brown has ran for two touchdowns and thrown for a third score.
Fullback Brandon Howe also added 86 yards on the ground and a 24-yard touchdown run. Sophomore slotback Kori Garcia had a team-leading 124 yards, his third career 100-yard game, and a 2-yard touchdown on 17 carries.
A penalty against Garcia for taunting negated another one of his scores just before the half, allowing Montana State to take its first lead on a 36-yard Luke Daley field goal with 1:59 left before the break.
It was a devastating sequence for Cal Poly, but Walsh kept Garcia’s head in the game.
“I told him at halftime, we’re still going to win this game,” Walsh said. “I don’t want the head down. I don’t want any of that stuff. Go play the second half, forget about that. It’s over. We can’t change that.
“I said we’ve been here all year. We were down 17-7 a couple of weeks ago to Sacramento State and came back and won. We’ve been here, man. We’ve done all that. Embrace it. We have the opportunity to really play like a champion. Embrace being a champion.”
The teams traded leads in the third quarter, but Cal Poly kept it for good on a 17-play 79-yard touchdown drive that sapped 8:10 off the clock in the fourth quarter, leaving the Bobcats with an eight-point deficit and only 2:30 left to play.
“I feel like the guys are feeling more confident,” Brown said. “I was already confident that we could make these certain plays, get these first downs on important third downs. I think our guys are starting to gain that confidence that we can and will win these games.”
On that last scoring drive alone, Cal Poly converted four third downs and two tries on fourth-and-short. For the game, the Mustangs were 10 of 17 on third down and 3 of 4 on fourth down.
For some time now, Cal Poly has played for all or nothing. More often than not lately, the Mustangs are getting it all.
“I’ve told our team all the way I’m going to do everything I can to give you every opportunity to win the game,” Walsh said. “We’re not going to play conservatively. We’re not going to back down from the opportunities we have. We’re going to go for them. We are going to play to win.”