Since a crushing 24-17 loss at UC Davis two weeks ago, the Cal Poly football team went from playing for the playoffs to playing for pride.
Though the Mustangs (5-5) would much rather still be gunning for an at-large spot in the 20-team FCS postseason bracket, the pride angle takes on some added meaning considering the opposition in today’s season finale at South Alabama.
The Jaguars (6-3), in their third season of football, have yet to lose at their own Ladd-Peebles Stadium, the longtime home of the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
Though the South Alabama home slate has been mostly a rag-tag collection of Division II opponents with a couple of NAIA and FCS team sprinkled in, the Jaguars have built a 19-game home winning streak.
Playing as an FCS independent this season before taking on a Sun Belt Conference schedule next year and becoming a full-fledged member of the FBS in 2013, South Alabama figures to have that streak end sooner than later.
The Jaguars are 8-1 all-time against FCS teams and 23-1 against non-FBS opponents.
Cal Poly represents the last hurdle to South Alabama staying undefeated at home in its first three seasons, however, and Jaguars head coach Joey Jones has been calling the Mustangs the best opponent the program has brought in to date.
Cal Poly will share a portion of the final Great West Conference football championship with the winner of today’s matchup between North Dakota and South Dakota before moving into the Big Sky Conference next season.
But before looking ahead to next year, the Mustangs seniors want to ensure they leave San Luis Obispo with a winning season. To do it, they’ll have to ruin South Alabama’s perfect home record.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Cal Poly senior slotback David Mahr said. “I feel like with the conference championship and winning the last game of the season, I could hold my head up and be proud and be proud for all my teammates as well.”
Mahr said the week leading up to the end of his career and the build-up lost in last week’s 53-51 triple-overtime loss to Eastern Washington — his final game in Alex G. Spanos Stadium — haven’t been nearly as emotional as the loss at UC Davis.
Senior defensive end Matt Singletary had a different take on the matchup with South Alabama. The pride angle is taking a backseat to the competition he’ll see on the field.
Cal Poly is viewing the Jaguars as its third FBS opponent of the season. South Alabama has certainly been recruiting for three seasons by dangling a bowl game at the end of the rainbow.
Walsh called the Jaguars’ offensive line the most physical the Mustangs have faced all season.
“I’m the most excited for this game because this is going to be the most straight football game,” said Singletary, a former Baylor transfer and the son of former San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary. “They’re not a massive group of guys, but they’re just a physical group of guys that get after you, and those are the most fun games. Two lines just killing each other in the game. Whoever’s the best will come out on top.”
It’s hard to gauge what the South Alabama offense will plan to do against Cal Poly.
The Jaguars average almost identical numbers on the ground and through the air. Though they run more rushing plays, the Jaguars average 165 rushing yards per game and 167.3 passing yards.
Within those numbers, the yards are very evenly distributed. Running backs Kendall Houston and Demetre Baker each have more than 100 carries and lead the team with 536 and 491 rushing yards, respectively.
Six receivers have each accounted for between 189 and 305 yards apiece.
South Alabama could continue to lean toward the run, where the Jaguars average 4.1 yards per carry, but Cal Poly has struggled mightily to stop the pass.
The Mustangs enter the game ranked 118th out of 120 FCS teams by allowing nearly 280 passing yards per game.
Eastern Washington’s Bo Levi Mitchell, the leading yardage passer in the FCS racked up 436 yards and five touchdowns against Cal Poly last week.
The secondary has been beset by injuries, but so has the defensive line, and Singletary said his unit shoulders the blame for not getting enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“When you see those numbers,” Singletary said, “you can’t help but think you gotta get there just a little bit faster to cut down on that.”