No matter the side of the looking glass, Cal Poly’s Great West Conference opening football game with Southern Utah is a matchup of two teams licking their chops.
And licking their wounds.
The Mustangs (2-3, 0-0 Great West) are at a stage in their season where wins are necessary to keep both their conference championship and playoff goals alive. One defeat in the next four weeks is likely to topple all of that.
What makes the Thunderbirds (3-3, 0-2 Great West) so dangerously capable of spoiling homecoming at Alex G. Spanos Stadium today is their proficiency in the passing game, the perceived weakness in Cal Poly’s defense.
Record-setting receiver Tysson Poots is now trying to break into the NFL, and former sidekick Fesi Sitake is gone, too, but quarterback Brad Sorensen — a former BYU transfer and current Southern Utah single-season record-holder in passing yardage (3,163 in 2010) — is still one of the leading passers in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Mustangs senior cornerback Asa Jackson has two interceptions and has returned both for touchdowns to lead the FCS in that category, but Cal Poly ranks 105th out of 120 FCS programs by allowing more than 265 passing yards per game.
“If you look at the numbers, we’re not doing our job as well as we could be,” Jackson said. “Part of it is other teams have good game plans for what we do, and part of it is we haven’t been sound in our coverage all the time. I don’t look at that as a negative thing. It’s just a challenge to us to prove that we are a solid secondary.”
Sorensen provides a high-caliber challenge.
The junior ranks seventh and 10th in the nation in completions (167) and yards per game (288.67), respectively, and the Thunderbirds rank 10th as a team in passing yardage.
They spread the ball around more than they did with Poots. Four players, including two running backs, have more than 20 receptions apiece. Three more receivers are in double figures.
Southern Utah could be primed for a big day, but Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh and senior safety Greg Francis will also note that the statistical skew comes in part because the Mustangs have forced a few opponents to pass by taking away the run.
The criticism “is fair,” Francis said. “We’ve let up a good amount of yards on passing each game, and we’re really working on that in practice. We’re still trying to stop the run game and make them pass, but we’ve just got to do things right when they do pass.”
Said Walsh: “And if they’re throwing it 50-60 times, they’re going to have some yards. The guy’s not going to go 0 for 60. That’s not going to happen.
“What we need is to be more consistent where the yards don’t add up to points.
“If they throw it 50 times and complete 30 of them for 240 yards, I’m OK — as long as they don’t have 240 yards rushing.”
That’s sort of been the case for the Thunderbirds in their losses.
Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb said the Thunderbirds have relied too much on Sorensen at times, and statistics bear that out. In all three games Sorensen has gone over 40 pass attempts, the Thunderbirds have lost.
They’ve started 0-2 in the Great West by losing by six points to North Dakota and five points to South Dakota after falling behind 16-0 and 14-0, respectively.
So, while the Thunderbirds are aware that their offense has a chance to put up big numbers against the Mustangs, Lamb is also wary that Southern Utah could suffer from another slow start, and Cal Poly is just the type of team to dish one out.
“We haven’t been able to run the ball effectively or stop the run for two weeks straight, and that’s a major problem,” Lamb said.
“It’s scary to see the way that Cal Poly is executing, and you look at a common opponent, South Dakota State and Cal Poly wasn’t even a game.”
The Mustangs beat the Jackrabbits 48-14 in their home opener Sept. 17 and have one of the most productive running attacks in the FCS. Cal Poly ranks fifth in the country with 258.4 yards per game. Southern Utah ranks 76th in the FCS, allowing 167.8 yards per game.
Andre Broadous, Jake Romanelli and Mark Rodgers — who combined for 291 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-25 victory over Division II Central Oklahoma last week — have reason to be just as optimistic as the Thunderbirds’ offense.
And as much as Cal Poly can worry about Southern Utah’s strengths, the Thunderbirds also know they haven’t won in San Luis Obispo since 1986.
“We’ve got one of the best teams in the country when we’ve got to play Cal Poly,” Lamb said. “And to play at home in their environment, that’s tremendous. It’s going too take 100 percent of our focus and concentration to be competitive this Saturday.”