San Diego receivers going over the middle felt it.
The 6,022 in attendance at Alex G. Spanos Stadium were glad not to have.
And everyone saw the turnovers pile up.
It was the kind of safety play the Cal Poly football team hasn’t really had in a while: Big hits and big plays that helped change the complexion of Saturday’s season-opening 41-14 victory over the Toreros.
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“We want to be the most feared group out here,” sophomore safety Dave Douglas said. “We want to be the most feared group in the nation. So, we hit hard, and we want to take every opportunity to compete for the ball.”
With former All-America cornerback Asa Jackson now with the Baltimore Ravens, two other starters from last year’s team graduated and another out for the season with an injury, the Mustangs have undergone a complete makeover in the defensive backfield.
Add some more injuries to the cornerback position — former Nipomo High standout Kevin Britt out for the season with a back injury and Jordan Williams limping on a hurt ankle — and the challenge has become more daunting for a defense that was one of the worst in the country against the pass last season.
On Saturday, the Mustangs relied on a new crop of safeties to pick up the slack, and the unit responded by coming up with three of the four Cal Poly turnovers on the night.
Douglas, who led the group with four tackles, had a bone-jarring hit in the first quarter and came up with a fumble recovery in the second.
A redshirt sophomore who’s had to watch and wait for his opportunity after being a highly touted signing day recruit, Douglas was all over the field in his first game as a starter.
“My coaches told me my role on the team is a ballhawk,” Douglas said. “So, wherever I can help my team out, I’m there. Big hits, interceptions, anything. As long as my teammates do their job and I do mine, the scheme is perfect for me.”
The scheme, it seemed, was tailored for the other safeties, too.
College of San Mateo transfer Alex Hubbard made three tackles, broke up a pass and returned an interception 19 yards while also flying around to the ball in his first game as a Mustang.
“David and Alex may not be the fastest 40 guys,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, “but they play fast. Their reaction time is fast. Alex Hubbard may only weigh 185 pounds, but I’ll tell you what, that whole 185 is going to get there.”
When San Diego was in passing situations, and the Mustangs’ depth at corner what it was, Cal Poly sent in a third safety, Matt Reza, to help in pass coverage instead of the extra corner who might enter the game in more traditional nickel packages.
Reza, a former transfer from Saddleback College who redshirted last season, had only one solo tackle but came up with the most impressive of the three interceptions on the night.
The junior laid out for a diving grab that denied the Toreros a chance to cut into the Mustangs’ 13-7 lead right before the end of the first half.
Last season’s starters at safety, Greg Francis and Angel Morales, were great players, Walsh said, but they were not as physical as the current group, which is forging a reputation that will certainly cause them to be tested in the coming weeks.
“They’re going to get challenged because they are so physical in the play-action game,” Walsh said, “and I think that will be the telltale answer of how good we actually are back there. But I was real impressed with how they flew around and played (Saturday).”