Athletes have to take everything one day, game or step at a time. Perhaps the most common cliché, it’s sports psychology’s greatest weapon.
Every week, the phrasing has been uttered in some form by the Cal Poly football team, and every week, it’s been a forced device — until now.
The No. 19 Mustangs host UC Davis today with playoff hopes and The Golden Horseshoe on the line. It’s literally the first time this season that “one blank at a time” couldn’t be followed up with a “yeah, but...”
One more loss, and the season will be over.
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“It gives us a chance to really focus on one game and one team,” sophomore cornerback Nico Molino said. “We can’t look ahead. We have nothing to look ahead to. We can focus on this one team and just game plan against them.”
All season long, it’s felt as if Cal Poly was running a gauntlet.
A brutal five-game road trip clouded the schedule in the first half of the season, and when the Mustangs came out from under that, next up was a four-game stretch where they needed to win out to become playoff eligible.
Today will be the last of those four before a bye week that could become a nail-biting waiting period to see if Cal Poly is awarded an at-large berth to the 20-team Football Championship Subdivision playoff bracket.
Whatever happens, the Mustangs feel like they’ve done their job by getting to this point.
“That’s a compliment to our football team, that we’ve gotten to a point where, by how we’ve played this year, we just have to play one game,” second-year Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “If we’re better than UC Davis and we win, then we’ll get to keep playing. And if they outplay us and we lose, then unfortunately it comes to an end.”
Tony Smith will get his fourth straight start at quarterback in place of Andre Broadous, who injured his shoulder in the Mustangs’ most recent loss, a 20-7 defeat at Southern Utah in mid-October.
That loss, during which Broadous was sacked and hurt on Cal Poly’s final play from scrimmage, put the Mustangs in a position where they had to win out to secure the strongly recommended seven Division I wins in order to become playoff eligible.
Broadous appears fully healthy this week and has split reps in practice.
Smith has delivered this season. The senior is 5-0 as a starter despite sporting just a 108.7 quarterback efficiency rating.
Broadous was developing into a weapon in Cal Poly’s triple option.
He has a 4-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, completed more than 64 percent of his passes and has a better rushing average (61 yards) per game than Smith (31.7).
“Tony’s going to start,” Walsh said. “He’s done some good things this year and deserves the opportunity to continue to do it. But the opportunity to play both exists now because Andre is 95 to 100 percent healthy. It’s not a wait-and-see thing. He’s had enough repetitions in practice that we feel comfortable that he can play well and contribute. We’ll do what we think we need to do to win the football game.”
Considering the opponent, perhaps a more troublesome injury situation for Cal Poly might be in the defensive secondary.
Starting safety Greg Francis is out for the second straight week, and cornerback Asa Jackson is returning after missing last week’s 38-24 win at South Dakota with a hip injury.
UC Davis ranks 33rd in the FCS with 224.7 passing yards per game, and Aggies receiver Sean Creadick is coming off four-straight 100-yard games and a three-touchdown performance last week.
Cal Poly comes in ranked 107th against the pass, allowing 248.5 yards per game.
Redshirt freshman Xavier Ramos will be making his second straight start in place of Francis, and Molino gained a lot of confidence after picking off a pass and racking up a team-high 10 tackles against the Coyotes.
After being burned a couple times in the first quarter, Molino rebounded to make several game-saving plays late.
“Honestly, all the guys on the team really kept their head in it and told me to keep my head up,” Molino said. “The confidence that I gained was within the team, and the guys on the team. I know that I can trust them, and I know they can trust me. It makes me want to work hard for them when I’m feeling tired or down or whatever.”
Cal Poly running back Mark Rodgers — who had 235 yards and two long touchdown runs against South Dakota — said UC Davis’ defensive scheme reminds him of Southern Utah’s.
The Thunderbirds were only 3:50 away from shutting out the Mustangs before Rodgers scored on a 29-yard pass from Broadous.
With the second chance at a similar defensive front, Rodgers said Cal Poly might not change much. The effort and execution of the players is what led to the poor performance against Southern Utah.
“It wouldn’t be anything different, just come out with more energy and being physical,” Rodgers said. “I think it would be the same game plan, just come out, play and be the better team.”