Having successfully ended a three-game losing streak with a rout of visiting Idaho State on Saturday, the Cal Poly football team enters the sixth week of the season with an opportunity to play the role of spoiler once again.
Coming off a 58-26 victory over the Bengals — a game where the Mustangs were arguably considered the favorite for the first time all year — Cal Poly is one of five teams in the Big Sky Conference with a 1-1 record.
If it’s going to be moving week in the Big Sky, the Mustangs (2-3, 1-1) drew one of the toughest assignments the conference has to offer. Cal Poly will kickoff against the three-time defending Big Sky champion Eastern Washington at 1:05 p.m. Saturday afternoon in Cheney, Wash.
“Eastern Washington, to me, is the premier program in our conference right now,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “It’s a huge challenge, but it’s a great opportunity for us to really make a statement.”
The Eagles (2-2, 1-0) had a bye during Week 5 and were able to get some extended recovery time following wins against Montana State (55-50) and Sacramento State (28-20) in their Big Sky opener.
Walsh likes to remind his coaching staff and players that anything can happen in the Big Sky Conference, and that was evident two weeks ago at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento. The visiting Eagles fell behind 10-7 after the first quarter and trailed 20-7 at halftime.
The same team that scored 42 points against Pac-12 North favorite Oregon during the season opener was well on its way to a loss against Sacramento State. Eastern Washington regrouped in the third quarter, went on a 21-0 run and never looked back.
The Eagles haven’t missed a beat offensively despite senior quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., last year’s Big Sky offensive player of the year, transferring schools.
Junior Jordan West, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound pocket passer, has been nothing short of superb. He passed for more than 1,500 yards through the first four games, an average of more than 466 yards per contest, both of which are the top marks in the FCS.
“You’ve got to keep the ball in front of you,” Walsh said of how Cal Poly will approach defending West and his string of talented wide receivers. “It’s a huge challenge for us, and our offense is going to have to keep up with them. That’s going to be a big piece of the game.”
There were several key takeaways from Saturday’s victory, many showing that the Mustangs are capable of making key adjustments during the week and executing them on game day.
Two weeks ago against Northern Iowa, Cal Poly was misaligned on defense repeatedly in the first half and couldn’t sustain blocks on the perimeter. When the Mustangs got in the red zone, they couldn’t convert.
It was more of the same against Montana State, though to a lesser degree.
Against the Bengals, Cal Poly’s defense pitched a shutout in the first and fourth quarters and forced three timely turnovers. They did give up three passing touchdowns during an otherwise improved performance on that side of the ball.
There’s not much to nitpick when a team runs for nearly 500 yards, as the Mustangs did Saturday. Four players ran for more than 50 yards — Kori Garcia (18 carries, 146 yards, three touchdowns), Chris Brown (19 carries, 132 yards, two touchdowns), Jared Mohamed (24 carries, 86 yards) and Kyle Lewis (six carries, 52 yards).
“The main thing was to have a fast start,” Garcia said. “We can’t put it all on the defense. It’s also on us. We can’t go down three times and not score. That was our main emphasis.”
As for the lack of blocking on the perimeter, slotback DJ Peluso apparently took that message to heart.
“DJ Peluso was a man child out there, I’m not gonna lie to you,” Walsh said. “He took three or four guys, decleated ’em.”
Cal Poly will need more of that aggression this week as it prepares for the most difficult game remaining on its schedule. With a bye week to follow and three of their last five games at home, the Mustangs are far from out of the Big Sky Conference race.
A win against Eastern Washington would go a long way.
“We can win,” Brown said. “We’ve just got to play hard and do what we do best and not step out of our zone in any area.
“Be focused and have the right attitude.”