Cal Poly’s football schedule for its last year before joining the Big Sky Conference next season appeared to be one of the toughest in school history when it was announced in February. So far, it hasn’t disappointed in that respect.
Midway through the first month of the season and after two road games, the Mustangs (0-2) will return home looking for their first win when they host South Dakota State (1-1) at 4:05 p.m. Saturday in Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
While the first half of a particularly arduous four-game stretch out of the gate – a 49-21 loss to FBS-level San Diego State (2-0) and a 37-23 defeat at the hands of 15th-ranked FCS power Montana – has passed, the latter duo of opponents certainly aren’t pushovers, either.
Although South Dakota State was thrashed 56-3 by Illinois this past weekend, the Jackrabbits opened with a 29-28 win over defending Great West champion Southern Utah. Southern Utah, in turn, beat Sacramento State 35-14 in Week 2. That win was made more impressive considering how Sacramento State had opened the season a week earlier, gaining national attention by stunning Oregon State, 29-28 in overtime.
The Mustangs need to finish with at least seven wins against Division I opponents to be eligible for an at-large berth into the FCS playoffs. Nine games remain, and one of them – Oct. 8 against Division II Central Oklahoma – is a “non-counter” with regard to the postseason.
“When you’re 0-2, I don’t know if I should talk about the playoffs,” Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said Saturday in Missoula, Mont., after the loss to the Grizzlies. “Right now, we should talk about winning a football game. Period, end of statement, and that’s the way we’re going to approach it. We need to win next week, period, just because we need to win. Not because of the playoffs, not because of anything else.
“And they’re going to be good,” he added of the Jackrabbits.
Indeed, South Dakota State is a program that has given Cal Poly headaches over the past decade, although the Mustangs did win the most recent meeting, 21-14 in San Luis Obispo in 2009.
Cal Poly’s fall quarter begins session Sept. 19, which could mean a better student turnout and more solid attendance than if the home opener had been scheduled in either of the past two weeks.
“It’s going to be great that it’s a home game,” Mustangs linebacker Johnny Millard said, “but regardless of whether it was a home game or an away game, we’ve got to go and win.”
Barring any unforeseen change, the upcoming game will also mark what will essentially be the home debut of junior quarterback Andre Broadous, who didn’t see significant playing time at Alex G. Spanos Stadium in either his redshirt freshman or sophomore years.
“I’m very excited for it,” Broadous said of being able to play in front of a long-awaited home crowd, “but (after the loss to Montana) I’m not really focused on that right now. But once we shake this (loss) off, I’m sure a lot of excitement will build when it comes to that game.”
The fourth game on the schedule, at FBS foe Northern Illinois on Sept. 24, could be one of the most challenging in recent Cal Poly history. The Huskies (1-1) are coming off a 45-42 loss to Kansas, but opened the year with a 49-26 win over Army, which – under former Mustangs coach Rich Ellerson – runs a triple-option-based offense similar to that of Cal Poly.
Last season, Northern Illinois enjoyed a breakout year, which it finished with a 40-17 rout of Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl. Although Northern Illinois lost the 2010 team’s coach, Jerry Kill, to Minnesota, the Huskies returned 11 starters from last year’s team, including all five offensive linemen and senior all-Mid-American first-team quarterback Chandler Harnish.