Over the summer, Cal Poly athletic director Alison Cone talked about how difficult it’s been to secure home games for the Mustangs football program.
Instead of booking a slate of well-known opponents to visit Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Cal Poly regularly welcomes a few unknowns. The way Cone termed it, the Mustangs have learned a lot about some unfamiliar programs.
Sometimes this includes programs that are transitioning to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. This week, it’s one transitioning to Division II.
With Dixie State (4-4) coming to San Luis Obispo for today’s nonconference game against the No. 19 Mustangs (3-3, 1-0 Great West Football Conference), this week is surely one of those learning experiences.
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Since 2006, Cal Poly has blown out several previously anonymous and overmatched opponents, including Fort Lewis, Savannah State, Iona and North Carolina Central. There was also a close call with Western Oregon.
Whatever pattern today’s game follows doesn’t matter to Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh. This game is merely the most important of the year, the next in a string of contests that could likely determine Cal Poly’s postseason fate.
The name of the opponent doesn’t matter nearly as much as the win would.
“We’ll let people make decisions about what they want to make decisions about,” Walsh said. “I know if we lose this week, there should be no more talk about the playoffs. I’m willing to say that.”
Still, Dixie State needs an introduction.
The name might sound odd for a former junior college in southern Utah that was founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but that’s where the learning comes in.
The southwest portion of Utah got the nickname Dixie in the 1860s, when Mormon farmers settled the area hoping to jump into the cotton market while the original Dixie — in the southeastern U.S. — was embroiled in the Civil War.
The college opened in 1911 and became a junior college in 1923, which it remained until 2000 when it started its transition to a state university.
As far as football is concerned, the program began making its transition to the NCAA in 2006. A year later, the university became affiliated with the University of Utah and changed its mascot from a Rebel to a red bull, which kind of sounds the same if you say it fast.
Dixie State head coach Ron Haun said the team was a solid junior college program. Notable alumni include recent NFL players Corey Dillon and Reno Mahe.
But after the school announced its intent to become a four year-university, the program took a two-year hiatus as players left to keep their Division I hopes alive.
“There was no carryover, so we had to start from scratch,” Haun said. “We’ve been trying to evolve and trying to get competitive and get kids into the program.”
Only eight seniors, Haun said, have been with the program all fours years that it’s been in transition to Division II, and the school only has five baccalaureate degrees. Competitively, the team has increased its win total each year. Since a 1-10 season in 2006, the Red Storm is 11-19 and still has a chance to finish with their first winning season since 2003, when they went 10-2 in their final season as a junior college.
The program was dormant during 2004 and 2005.
This season, Dixie State is 0-2 against FCS opposition, including a 36-7 loss to Southern Utah. Cal Poly is coming off a one-point win against the Thunderbirds.
The Red Storm also has a 23-20 loss to Montana State on its résumé, an impressive loss for a Division II program.
This week however, Dixie State could be without its top two receivers because of injury, and Haun said preparing for the Mustangs’ triple-option offense has been tough with a scout team that can’t compare to the real life Cal Poly version.
But as Walsh indicated early, Mustangs players won’t be focused on the name Dixie, where it comes from, history of the program or its recent struggles.
“We watched film on them and they look good,” Cal Poly linebacker Carlton Gillespie said. “For us, we’re going to prepare the same way no matter what. We’re not going to give anybody any slack. We don’t care what division they are.”