As far as sports clichés go, a “must-win situation” accurately describes what the Cal Poly football team faces during the fifth week of the season.
It has been nearly a month since the Mustangs upset Montana in Missoula, and during that time Cal Poly has gone from unranked to No. 17 in the country to absent in the polls once again.
Dropping three consecutive games against favored opponents and losing veterans Chris Fletcher and Elias Stokes to season-ending injuries has the Mustangs in the same situation they were a year ago: 1-3 and eager to get back on track.
“I think we know how good we are,” senior defensive end Logan Mayes said. “So we’re not going to let this season go to waste.”
With a trip to ninth-ranked Eastern Washington looming before the Oct. 17 bye week, Saturday’s 6:05 p.m. matchup against Idaho State at Alex G. Spanos Stadium carries as much weight as any game on Cal Poly’s schedule.
The Bengals (1-3, 0-1 Big Sky Conference) had a resurgent 2014 season and finished in a three-way tie for second in the conference. But the graduation of first-team all-Big Sky quarterback Justin Arias has left Idaho State sputtering offensively this fall.
After a 55-0 win against Division II Black Hills State University in their season opener, the Bengals have been outscored 166-22 during their losses to Portland State (34-14), Boise State (52-0) and UNLV (80-8).
“They’re kind of like us, two teams that are struggling to find their identity on offense, and we’re trying to find our identity on defense,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “I think one of those two sides is going to stand up Saturday night.”
When the two teams met last season in Pocatello, Idaho, then-No. 21 Cal Poly brought a five-game winning streak into Holt Arena. An early two-touchdown deficit proved to be too much for the Mustangs to come back from, and Cal Poly was effectively eliminated from the FCS playoffs a week later.
Two Bengals who had standout performances that day will be key focuses for the Mustang defense this week. First-team all-Big Sky wide receiver Madison Mangum and first-team running back Xavier Finney combined for 284 yards and a touchdown in last year’s 30-28 victory.
Neither offense has been able to meet the preseason expectations given the nine returning starters on each team. Cal Poly (22.2 points per game) and Idaho State (19.2) rank ninth and 12th in scoring in the Big Sky, respectively — a stark contrast for both teams from a year ago, when the Bengals scored more than 40 points per game and the Mustangs averaged nearly
34 per contest.
“The nature of the game is you’ve got to be able to outscore people. Right now, we’re not,” Walsh said. “… But if we’re going to get back in the hunt, we’re gonna have to start scoring more points than we’re scoring early on on offense.”
The Mustangs are producing similar rushing numbers to the past two seasons. Their 330 rushing yards per game are third in the FCS and No. 1 in the Big Sky by nearly 90 yards.
Sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe leads the conference in rushing with 433 yards and more than 108 per game. His 98 carries are the highest total in the Big Sky by a wide margin, well ahead of teammate Chris Brown at 77.
Brown’s 397 rushing yards are the second-most among Big Sky players and the 12th-best mark in the FCS.
“Our offense isn’t a bang-bang, score in 30 seconds offense,” senior offensive tackle Weston Walker said. “It’s a methodical, pound it down the field, take some time offense.”
The Bengals have had their own share of bad luck on the injury front.
All-conference safety Taison Manu, who tallied 110 tackles as a junior, broke his foot in the offseason and will likely use his redshirt year this fall.
Linebacker Mario Jenkins, the 2014 Big Sky freshman of the year and Idaho State’s leading tackler last fall, also suffered an injury that will force him to miss the entire season.
Between Manu, Jenkins and the graduated Mitch Beckstead, the Bengals lost 347 tackles, 28 tackles for loss and eight interceptions from their 2014 defense.
“The one thing about defense, especially against the run, it’s not about physical ability,” Idaho State coach Mike Kramer said. “It’s about your mental desire to be a part of something special.
“The good defensive coaches find ways to get all their guys to bring a toughness element against the run, and we do not have that right now but we’re trying to find it.”