There’s almost no reason why it should happen again.
Riding two straight upset victories over San Diego State going into tonight’s season-opening rematch with the Aztecs, the Cal Poly football team has a green group of receivers where it used to have NCAA record-breaker Ramses Barden.
With former head coach Rich Ellerson’ exodus to Army complete long ago, the program is entering its third season under Tim Walsh, who is slowly morphing Ellerson’s triple option into a no-huddle spread option.
On top of that, Aztecs senior quarterback Ryan Lindley has gone from a redshirt freshman in his first career start to one of the most highly regarded dropback passers in the country, sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman is coming off a freshman All-America campaign and San Diego State has gone through two head coaching changes.
A lot has happened in both cities since two-point Cal Poly victories in both 2006 and 2008.
But there are still plenty of Mustangs who know that anything’s possible.
“I’m just trying to treat it as just another game,” said senior cornerback Asa Jackson, one of five remaining Cal Poly players who played in the previous matchup. “It’s hard to do because you’re playing someone that’s a division up and we go in as an underdog, but at least for me and the seniors, we have a track record where we can say we’ve won games like this before.”
Senior tackle Art Munoz, granted a sixth year of eligibility on an injury waiver by the NCAA, is the lone Mustangs player to be present at Qualcomm Stadium for both previous victories.
Munoz was starting as a freshman when an injury took him out the week before the 2006 game. He watched from the sidelines in crutches.
In 2008, Munoz played every offensive snap — from Jonathan Dally’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Barden in the first quarter to Andrew Gardner’s game-winning 21-yard field goal as time expired.
“There’s a lot of guys here asking me questions,” Munoz said, “like ‘How was it?’ From that experience, I’m telling them, we can do it. We’ve done it before. We’ve done it twice before. So, we’re going in there with the mentality that we’ve done it before, we’ll do it this time.”
Having to get over the jitters of playing his first collegiate game in an NFL stadium, Jackson was burned for an early touchdown.
Before long, the true freshman from Christian Brothers High, a small private school in Sacramento that never won any rivalry games while Jackson played there, was ending an Aztecs drive in the red zone with a 46-yard interception return.
On the other side of the field, there aren’t many memories left from 2008, which ended with former head coach Chuck Long’s firing and marked one of the lowest points in San Diego State football history.
Former Morro Bay High standout Jerome Long remembers only a blur from the night he played his first game a true freshman and left with a sprained ankle for the Aztecs.
Lindley, who passed for 353 yards and three touchdowns in his first start as a redshirt freshman, was not fond of looking back to that night, but as the program has worked its way into contention in the Mountain West Conference with last year’s 9-4 season, it hasn’t stuck with him as a sore spot.
“It was a rough one for us to remember,” Lindley said, “but it was a good one. They have a good team. It was a real fight. You can’t get mad about losing a close one.”
Not when it appears you have moved on to bigger and better things.
Going from Chuck Long to Brady Hoke — the former head coach who left for Michigan after last season — to Rocky Long has resulted in a drastic transformation.
The Aztecs are running one of the most productive pro-style offenses in the country, and the 3-3-5 defense of Rocky Long, who served as defensive coordinator under Hoke, is a lot more disruptive than the 4-3.
“It’s almost a total facelift,” Lindley said. “There have been a lot of changes since then. It feels like forever, but it was almost yesterday. We’ve improved as a team, and we’ve taken some steps in the right direction.”
The same facelift comment could be said about Cal Poly.
The Mustangs ditched Ellerson’s flex defense, which can have a lot in common with the 3-3-5, for a more traditional 4-3. And Walsh is trying to take advantage of the skills of scrambling quarterback Andre Broadous and slotbacks Mark Rodgers, David Mahr and Deonte Williams by designing plays that give them room to make plays.
This season could go a long way in determining whether those are steps in the right direction. All it means for tonight is that there is little continuity from the previous upsets by the Mustangs.
“That was awesome for the 2006 and the 2008 teams,” Walsh said. “I congratulate those guys for great wins and their careers and for giving themselves a great memory. For us, we’re creating our own season and own memories for 2011. We’re not playing the San Diego State team of 2008, and we’re probably not the Cal Poly team of 2008.”