When the Cal Poly football team was held to nine points at San Jose State last week, it was the first time the Mustangs had been held to single digits since 2006.
In the past two games combined, Cal Poly (1-2) has scored just one offensive touchdown.
If the Mustangs want to avoid their third straight loss, they’re going to have to turn around those numbers because statistics like these seem right up the alley of tonight’s opponent, South Dakota State (3-0).
“We’ve worked hard on the red zone offense this week,” first-year Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “When we get down there, we’ve got to score touchdowns. That’s probably the difference between us being 1-2 and 2-1.”
The Mustangs had little trouble scoring points in a season-opening 38-19 win over Sacramento State but since have seen their scoring stymied by consecutive Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.
Walsh said not to expect South Dakota State to be at the level of Sacramento State (0-3) just because Cal Poly is getting back to playing Football Championship Subdivision opposition.
The Jackrabbits come into San Luis Obispo with their first 3-0 start and as much optimism as they’ve ever had since the school started transitioning to Division I in 2004.
Their wins have come against overmatched teams with a combined record of 3-10 this season, but that hasn’t tempered their enthusiasm.
“You’ve got to come ready to play and that’s what our guys have done,” South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier said. “Our guys have prepared, and said, ‘Whatever effort I put into this game regardless of the outcome, I’m going to come out better for that.’ ”
South Dakota State has averaged 41 points per game and has outscored opponents 123-23, but to a Mustangs offense in the midst of a scoring slump, the Jackrabbits look especially menacing on defense — where the first unit has yet to give up an offensive touchdown.
South Dakota State ranks second in the FCS in total defense, allowing 204 yards per game. The Jackrabbits are giving up fewer than 32 rushing yards per game, a number that leads all of Division I.
“Probably the best defense we’ve played against in terms of discipline, size and strength,” Walsh said. “They may not be as fast, but they play fast because of the effort that they give.”
South Dakota State also has the benefit of playing against Cal Poly’s triple-option offense each of the past three seasons.
Former Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson and offensive coordinator Ian Shields are both at Army now, and six offensive starters are also gone from last year, but Stiegelmeier said there is not much difference between what they did and what Walsh is doing.”
“The only noticeable difference other than graduating some really good football players,” Stiegelmeier said, “is the offense is still a little bit in evolution. Coach Ellerson had more looks, and coach Walsh I’m sure we’re going to see some new looks in terms of his progression. Coach Ellerson had been there for so long.”
Cal Poly is eighth in the FCS with just more than 225 yards per game on the ground, and if South Dakota State can win that battle up front, the Mustangs would have to rely on an inconsistent passing attack.
After a sparkling debut against Sacramento State, first-year starting quarterback Tony Smith had a 1-for-11 performance at Ohio before bouncing back to go 10 for 25 with 135 yards against San Jose State.
UCLA transfer Dominique Johnson has 11 catches for 166 yards, but Cal Poly’s other three wide receivers have combined to catch just four passes, and Johnson has yet to get into the end zone.