The Cal Poly football team is leading the nation in rushing.
The Mustangs’ offense ranks in the top five in the FCS in passing efficiency and third-down conversion percentage. Only one team in the country has fewer turnovers.
And No. 21 Cal Poly (6-3, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) is doing all of the above with an offensive line that’s been beset by an inordinate amount of injuries.
How have the Mustangs been able to put themselves in this position — tied for the Big Sky lead heading into Saturday’s showdown at Idaho State (6-3, 4-1 Big Sky) — after a 0-2 start where they averaged just 14 points?
Many answers lead back to “Coach T.”
In his second season as Cal Poly’s play-caller and sixth as the offensive line coach, Saga Tuitele has been receiving heaps of weekly praise since the Mustangs embarked on their current five-game winning streak.
For keeping the offensive line play consistent under fire and devising gameplans that make the Mustangs one of the most unique offenses in the country, Tuitele is referenced often during interviews with almost everyone on the team.
“The first thing is, it’s not a one-man show,” Tuitele said. “I credit our staff and those kids. This is the type of team that we have. Everybody is so unselfish. It’s amazing. This is unreal. I’ve never been around a team like this to where we are so unselfish that no one is taking credit for anything.
“And when you get teammates unselfish like that, they start to believe in each other, they start to believe in themselves. And that’s the real thing. The team is believing, and that’s what’s getting us through these injuries. Those young guys, they’re just believing in themselves because the older guys are believing in them.”
Belief and confidence are key words for Cal Poly.
The Mustangs came into the season without a senior on the offensive line and have lost several starters to injury for the majority of the year.
Sophomore Matt Fisher, a returning starter projected to play left tackle, broke his foot in training camp and reinjured it when he returned to live action six weeks later. Sophomore guard Derek Sabo, a starter at guard, sustained a concussion and is out for the season.
Redshirt freshman Ross Berry broke his foot in his first career start and has a long road to recovery himself.
That’s on top of word that former starter Kyle Zottneck might not play again after suffering a career-threatening injury last year.
Center Stephen Sippel and guard Nick Enriquez, two more starters, have played through injury in recent weeks where the ranks have come become dangerously thin.
Yet, Cal Poly continues to play better and better, beating top-10 opponents in back-to-back weeks, and every player who’s stepped into the lineup has referenced Tuitele’s confidence in them as the motivating factor.
“It’s ridiculous the amount of trust he puts in us,” junior quarterback Chris Brown said. “He believes we can be the best that we can be when we’re out on the field, and it shows with the play calls. Coach T does a great job of making the right plays at the right times. Nobody’s perfect, but whatever call he sends out to me, I try to do my best to trust him and trust our guys to make it happen.”
Cal Poly’s six turnovers are second only to Montana’s four. With third-down conversions serving as the lifeblood to the option offense, the Mustangs are converting 50.7 percent. Both that figure and their 72.7 percent conversion rate on fourth down each rank fourth in the FCS. In last week’s 35-27 win over then-No. 8 Montana State, Cal Poly was 10 of 17 on third down and 3 of 4 on fourth down, including two short fourth-down conversions on a game-clinching, 17-play touchdown drive that sapped eight minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter.
“There’s no question he’s doing an unbelievable job,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “You really grow and learn each week that you do it. I really think that our offense and Coach T, they used the offseason to really examine what we did last year and what we could do better this year.
“I’ve done good things for him and given him opportunities, but he’s performed pretty well, and he’s reciprocated pretty well.”
Cal Poly’s 350.8 yards per game on the ground are the most the Mustangs have averaged under Walsh, who took over in 2009 and brought Tuitele with him from Army.
The roots of their relationship date back even further. Tuitele was an All-America guard playing for Walsh at Portland State in the late 1990s and stuck around to coach with his mentor, who left the Vikings for the Black Knights in 2007.
Last season, Tuitele took over play-calling duties from quarterbacks coach Bryan Cook, who left to join Georgia Tech after helping guide Cal Poly to a playoff berth in 2012.
After a slow start this season, Tuitele seems right at home in coaches’ booth, and in many ways the offense is just as impressive as that last playoff team, if not more so.
The Mustangs’ 480.8 yards of total offense per game place them 12th in the FCS. Their 14.6 yards per pass completion rank ninth, and a 164.2 efficiency rating is fourth.
In the 2012 season, when Cal Poly got a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs, the Mustangs averaged 449.3 yards of total offense and 324.2 on the ground.
As much as Cook helped define and expand the playbook to include shotgun sets and a no-huddle pace, Tuitele has helped keep it fresh, too, thanks he said to continued retooling in the offseason and maintaining a unique identity.
“A lot of the option teams, they like to milk the clock, and yes the time of possession is great,” Tuitele said, “but I want to go as fast as I can and get many plays as I can. The more plays we have, the more chances we get to the end zone.
“That’s what makes us unique, and the fact that we take what they give us and we adjust in the shotgun. We’re not afraid to get in shotgun. We’re not afraid to take anything out of the ordinary that they give us.”
Cook was able to parlay his success with Cal Poly into a promotion. Could Tuitele be a candidate this offseason?
“I definitely think so,” Walsh said. “I think Coach T really wants to be a head coach some time. That’s up to him if he wants to leave and go be a coordinator, too. That’s something he can do, too.
“I always want good things to happen for good people, and he’s a great guy, number one, and I think he’s a great football coach, and if he ever decides to leave, God bless him.”