In its first year as a Division I program and facing an offense led by NFL Draft pick Ramses Barden, the South Dakota football team had no illusions of grandeur when the Coyotes called upon Alex G. Spanos Stadium last season.
With two games left to go for the new-look Mustangs this season — and one more remaining for South Dakota — Coyotes head coach Ed Meierkort is approaching today’s matchup up with Cal Poly at Spanos a little differently.
No more Ramses means no more mystique for the Mustangs.
“Last year, we came out to sight see at Pismo Beach,” Meierkort said. “This year, we’re coming out to try to win a football game.”And by all angles, the game appears like it should be a competitive matchup.
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Both teams sport identical 4-5 overall records and 1-2 marks in the Great West Football Conference, meaning plenty is at stake.
The loser is not only guaranteed the fifth and last-place spot in the conference standings, which would be a first-to-worst flip flop for Cal Poly, but the team that goes down would also be saddled with its first losing season in a while.
The Mustangs have not finished below .500 since finishing 3-8 in 2002. South Dakota has not had a losing season under Meierkort, who’s in his sixth year as the Coyotes head coach.
In order for Cal Poly to finish with a winning record, the Mustangs would have to beat South Dakota this week and Weber State on the road next week in the season finale.
Next week’s road game seems dicey when considering Cal Poly is 0-5 on the road this season.
Conversely, the Mustangs are 4-0 at home, something that bodes well for Cal Poly since the Coyotes are also winless away from home.
That, in fact, has been a conference-wide problem. It’s the reason every team has at least one loss. Of the eight conference games played entering today, only once has the road team won.
“It’s the nature of the conference,” Cal Poly head coach Time Walsh said. “Everybody has had something that’s happened to them in the conference as far as why they’re in the situation that they’re in. The road has been rough on all five of us.”
For Cal Poly, the problem has been second-half play. In each of the past four road losses, the Mustangs have held the halftime lead. It’s looking as much like a psychological roadblock as anything.
South Dakota, meanwhile, can point directly to its late-game foibles as well. Of the Coyotes’ past three road losses, one was a four-point defeat at Northern Colorado, the other two came in overtime.
South Dakota really hasn’t been blown out since September, and the Coyotes don’t figure on being beaten handily, if at all, by Cal Poly.
In marquee games against Southern Utah and South Dakota State at home, the Mustangs capitalized on a fumble recovery and a missed extra point to eek out a couple of wins.
Outside of two blowout victories against Sacramento State, which hasn’t beaten Cal Poly in the past six tries, and Dixie State — a team transitioning from junior college to Division II — Cal Poly has not shown an ability to pull away from opponents.
“They’ve got a lot of athletes,” said senior running back Jon Hall, who’ll be paying his final home game in a Cal Poly uniform, “and it’s going to be a fight to the end, honestly, because we’ve got to come out hot on offense.”
The biggest concern for the Mustangs is South Dakota’s offensive prowess.
The Coyotes lead the Great West in total offense (450 yards per game), rushing offense (209 ypg), pass efficiency (142 QB rating) and time of possession (32.26 minutes per game) and are second in the conference in scoring (30.6 points per game).
Much of that has to do with senior quarterback Noah Shepard, who’s accounted for 27 touchdowns this season, including 11 on the ground.
Shepard ran for three touchdowns against Cal Poly last season, when he passed for 211 yards and rushed for 92 more in 49-22 loss where Barden had 158 yards and three touchdowns on just five catches.
“One of the things that we’ll have to do is we’ll have to have ad-libbed yards by Noah, especially early,” Meierkort said. “Sometimes some of our best play is where our protection breaks down. As an old defensive guy, that’s what gets you thinking.”
Scrambling quarterbacks certainly gave the Mustangs problems in their loss at North Dakota.
Cal Poly was in control of the game before Fighting Sioux quarterback Jake Landry had two big rushes on a touchdown drive capped by his own 28-yard run.
Landry’s legs kept his team in the game early, and North Dakota was able to take over in the second half.
And Shepard represents the best pass-run threat the Mustangs have faced all season.
“Not only can he throw the ball, but you’ve got to be ready for him to scramble” Cal Poly linebacker Marty Mohamed said, “and that’s one of the toughest things you can defend. We have to be ready for that, and that’s what we’ve been working on.”