Tim Walsh took an outsider’s perspective this week when asked to assess his team’s chances of earning an at-large berth to the 16-team Football Championship Subdivision playoffs with a 2-3 record, a No. 19 ranking in both major polls and six games to go.
The first-year Mustangs head coach said he isn’t personally interested in looking past this week’s homecoming game and Great West Football Conference opener against Southern Utah but did not shrink from the postseason topic.
“From a long-term standpoint, if that’s the only goal that you have, you probably have to win out,” Walsh said. “That’s what the probability is.”
Securing the minimum qualifications — at least seven Division I victories while at the same time impressing pollsters and the selection committee enough to gain entrance from a conference without an automatic bid — is not a new problem for Cal Poly.
Even last season’s record-setting Mustangs juggernaut had its back against the wall at midseason.
The Mustangs have only five more games left against Division I opponents, and the season finale at Weber State could set up to be an elimination game for both teams.
“If we can win the conference, beat a good Division II school (in Dixie State next week), that last game could become a playoff meaningful game,” Walsh said. “Just start the playoffs a week early, if we get there. But if we don’t take care of business week-to-week, that’s null and void.”
The Mustangs probably have to win out, and after last week’s game against No. 3 Montana slipped away in the fourth quarter, a kind of playoff situation for Cal Poly starts today against the Thunderbirds, a team that hasn’t won in San Luis Obispo since 1987 and has dropped eight in a row to the Mustangs.
Southern Utah is coming off a bye, the second straight Cal Poly opponent to have two weeks to prepare for the Mustangs’ triple-option offense, but Cal Poly could be getting a little healthier.
Receiver Dominique Johnson, who missed most of the past two games with a dislocated shoulder but still leads the team with 197 receiving yards, practiced Thursday for the first time since the injury. Quarterback Tony Smith also took snaps and could be back in the starting lineup after going down with a thigh bruise at Montana.
If Smith does not start, redshirt freshman Andre Broadous will take his place.
Minus the injuries, Southern Utah has had a very similar start to the season as Cal Poly. Both teams have lost two road games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. Each has two wins at home and another road loss in the FCS.
Once holders of an overall 19-game losing streak a couple of years ago, the Thunderbirds are looking to finally break their curse in San Luis Obispo after trading blows in a 35-34 first half against Cal Poly last season before finally settling for a 69-41 defeat.
“To this point, a lot of the positive energy around the community and around the country has been about improvement,” second-year Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb said. “About two years ago, our staff got here and we set out to be the hardest-working team in America … I know that our players have played really hard and earned the respect of opponents in that way.”
Southern Utah certainly earned its respect with last season’s performance at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The Thunderbirds put up 538 yards of total offense, including 469 yards through the air.
The Thunderbirds offense is rolling once again. Senior quarterback Cade Cooper has passed for 1,275 yards and ranks ninth in the FCS in completions. Southern Utah also ranks in the top 15 in scoring in the FCS at more than 33 points per game.
Cal Poly, averaging just more than 20 points, ranks 75th.
“They have a quick passing game, but they have some deep threats, too,” said Mustangs safety Scottie Cordier who’s tied for the conference lead with four interceptions. “They do it all actually. They go up top, they do play action, they beat you deep, and they even just do quick. The three-step just to get down the field. Coach is telling us on their third downs, they’re at 50 percent, and that’s pretty good.”
And making the Thunderbirds look more dangerous to Walsh is their ability to run the ball effectively.
Southern Utah running back Austin Minefee leads the Great West with 86.8 yards per game on the ground.
“We set out at the beginning of every year to be a balanced offense,” Lamb said. “A year ago, we didn’t have the personnel to do it. We didn’t have very much strength up front in our line. We didn’t have enough runners to run hard. This year, we’ve got some more competent backs.”