Every week, it seems, the Cal Poly football team’s defense has to field questions wondering how in the world the Mustangs are going to stop whichever offense they’re coming up against.
So goes the life in the Big Sky Conference, which is home to a large chunk of the best offenses in the country.
Today, No. 21 Cal Poly (6-3, 5-1 Big Sky) visits Idaho State (6-3, 4-1 Big Sky), and the Bengals just happen to have the top passing offense in the nation, the leading rusher in the conference and an offense scoring 41 points per game, eighth in the FCS.
“Every week we play against somebody,” senior safety Dave Douglas said, “and they always want to talk about how good this offense is. If we play as fast as we can play, we can play with anybody. We’re the best defense in the Big Sky.”
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Statistically, Douglas may have a tough argument to make, but the way the Mustangs have stepped up in recent weeks, Cal Poly’s defense is playing with a lot of confidence.
In the most recent four games of the current five-game winning streak, the Mustangs have held opponents to 24.8 points per game.
While Cal Poly’s 29.1 overall scoring defense ranks 74th out of 121 FCS teams, the points totals are saying something considering that five of the top 15 FCS teams in total offense reside in the Big Sky, and those same five teams are also in the top 24 in scoring offense.
Five of the nation’s top 17 teams in passing yards are from the Big Sky, as are three of the top four in passing efficiency.
No. 15 Montana State came into last week’s first-place showdown averaging 43.6 points per game, which led the conference and ranked fourth in the FCS. Cal Poly held the Bobcats well below their average in a 35-27 Mustangs victory.
Idaho State presents another big challenge this week. Senior quarterback Justin Arias leads the nation in passing yards per game (343.6) and touchdown passes (29). Junior running back Xavier Finney is fifth with a single-season program record 1,235 rushing yards already and sixth in the FCS with 14 rushing touchdowns.
“This team seems to be well-coached and very versatile with what they do,” Douglas said. “So, one play can have three other options off of it. Similar to last week, we’ve just got to make sure we have our eyes right. If we get unfocused and miss a count or miss a receiver or anything like that, that’s six (points).
“Our coaches are preparing us for all types of stuff they got, and right now I feel mentally prepared just as physically prepared. So, if we play fast and focused, we won’t have a problem this week.”
This is certainly a different Idaho State team than the last one Cal Poly played against.
In the penultimate game of the 2012 regular season, the Mustangs destroyed the Bengals 70-14 in San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly had a 28-0 lead after the first quarter in that game.
It was part of a season where Idaho State finished 1-10 and 0-8 in conference.
“By the time we got to Cal Poly in 2012, I don’t know if there’s a worse word than pathetic, but that’s what we were on both sides of the ball,” fourth-year Bengals head coach Mike Kramer said. “We’d lost our will to fight. We’d lost our competitive composure. We were the most negative organization you could be at the end of the season, just playing it out.
“We’re obviously much different now. We’re more resolute in what we’re trying to do.”
The teams didn’t play in 2013 because of the rotating schedule in the 13-team Big Sky, but it was only slightly more successful for Idaho State. The Bengals were 3-9 and 1-7 in conference play, tying for 11th place.
It made Kramer 6-28 and 2-22 in his first three seasons in Pocatello, Idaho.
This year, however, the Bengals are one of six teams tied with one loss atop the standings. They’ve won four in a row and six of the past seven. The one loss was a 56-53 loss against star quarterback Vernon Adams and Eastern Washington when the Eagles were ranked second in the country.
Adams broke his foot in that game but still led Eastern Washington on seven touchdown drives and threw his 99th career touchdown pass, a Big Sky record.
Idaho State’s other two losses were to FBS opponents Utah and Utah State.
It makes for another huge game for Cal Poly, which has been treating each matchup like a playoff game since opening the Big Sky schedule with a 38-35 last-minute loss Northern Arizona that dropped the Mustangs to 1-3.
Since then, Cal Poly has fought to the top of the conference, where it is tied with Eastern Washington, and has its eyes set on its second Big Sky crown in three years in the conference. The Mustangs can clinch the conference championship with a victory today and a win over rival UC Davis next week with only a nonconference game against San Diego left to play in the regular-season finale.
To Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh, it could be up to the defense to get it done.
“Our defense needs to play,” Walsh said. “Whether we have the ball for eight minutes or nine minutes, it doesn’t matter. We need to score touchdowns on offense, and then on the other side of the ball, we need to keep the ball in front of us, and make them earn whatever they get.
“We need to win. It’s as simple as that. It sounds hard, but it really doesn’t matter how. We need to win this week.”