This is the big test — one the Cal Poly football team hasn’t aced in a few years.
Last season, the Mustangs defense ranked among the worst in the FCS against the pass.
They weren’t much better at getting teams off the field on third down, and they created one of the lowest turnover totals, especially after All-America cornerback Asa Jackson suffered a midseason foot injury.
Despite a season-opening 41-14 victory over San Diego this year, all of the above still sets the stage for Saturday’s visit to Wyoming.
The Cowboys (0-2) have been one of the most productive passing teams early in this college football season, and even though the Mustangs (1-0) forced the Toreros into three interceptions, Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh still considers his remade defense to be untested through the air.
That area will likely be the one to determine whether the Mustangs can get their first upset over an FBS opponent in the Walsh era.
“That would be huge for us, huge for this program and huge for this city,” fifth-year senior middle linebacker Kennith Jackson said. “It would be great for the fans to know that their team is on the rise. And coming into the Big Sky, we’re really ready to make some noise this year.”
Jackson hasn’t been a part of the program’s four FBS upsets as an active player. He redshirted under then-head coach Rich Ellerson when Cal Poly had its last victory over an FBS team in 2008.
NFL Draft pick and NCAA record-breaking receiver Ramses Barden, quarterback Jonathan Dally and running back James Noble led the Mustangs to a last-second 29-27 victory at San Diego State in the season opener.
In perhaps the more memorable game, that same stacked team fell 36-35 in overtime at Wisconsin in the penultimate week of the regular season.
Ellerson-coached teams also took out UTEP 34-13 in 2003 and San Diego State 16-14 in 2006. The program overall is 3-10 in its past 13 games against FBS opposition. The fourth FBS upset came during a 10-1 season under Larry Welsh in 1997 when Cal Poly beat New Mexico State 38-35 in overtime.
Since Walsh took over in 2009, the Mustangs are 0-5 against FBS teams with the closest call being a 19-9 loss at San Jose State. In only Walsh’s third game with the program, Cal Poly led 9-0 in the first half and left four points worth of blocked kicks on the field.
If the game against the Spartans was Walsh’s best chance to knock off an FBS team, it could be eclipsed by the Wyoming game.
The Cowboys will be without starting quarterback Brett Smith, a sophomore who was knocked unconscious and carted off the field after taking an illegal hit late in last week’s 34-31 loss to Toledo.
A former freshman All-American, Smith has helped Wyoming average 309 passing yards in its first two games, numbers that lead the Mountain West Conference and rank 20th overall in the FBS.
Smith himself ranks ninth in the FBS in total passing (615), 13th in total offense per game (347.5), 14th in passing yards per game (307.5), 19th in passing efficiency (165.8) and is also the team’s leading rusher with 40 yards per game on the ground. Without ruling Smith out, the Cowboys have been preparing all week as if they’ll have to play without him, and his absence could open the door for a Cal Poly victory.
That is if the Mustangs can contain junior backup Colby Kirkegaard, who took the majority of spring snaps as Smith recovered from offseason surgery, or freshman Jason Thompson, who may also receive time.
Walsh is certain the Wyoming spread will remain challenging no matter what.
“They’re going to get yards,” Walsh said. “I don’t care who plays quarterback, they’re going to get yards. That’s the nature of who they are, and what they want you to do is get frustrated and make the mistake that leads to a big play, a 70-yard play.
“Even against Texas, they threw a 6-yard hitch that went for an 80-yard touchdown.
“We’re going to judge the outcome of the game by how we play the whole of the game, not by how much yardage we give up because they won the yardage battle last week and lost the game. We have to minimize the points they have, not the yards they have.”
The Mustangs defense will have to prove it’s improved over last season when Cal Poly finished 6-5 and won a share of the last Great West Conference football title but was second-to-last among 120 FCS teams against the pass.
Cal Poly’s defense gave up 274 yards per game through the air and also ranked in the bottom seven in the FCS in third-down conversions, allowing first downs 46.4 percent of the time. The 16 turnovers they forced landed them in the bottom quarter of FCS teams, too.
Circumstances have led to a near complete makeover of the defense since last year.
Linebackers coach Josh Brown was promoted to defensive coordinator when Greg Lupfer left for Colorado State. Lupfer’s replacement as defensive backs coach, Randy Hanson, was arrested after a bar fight on the eve of fall training camp, and he was replaced by Neil Fendall, a former Division III assistant who played for Walsh at Portland State.
They’ve simplified a defense that returns only three starters from last season, and Jackson said the trouble playing the pass last year has been addressed.
“It was definitely a team-wide issue,” Jackson said. “There was a lack of focus maybe come game time to being in the right spot and doing the right things.
“I have to say, the new coaches have really helped. Coach Brown stepping in at defensive coordinator, coach Fendall coming in and helping our DBs with their pass props, really helping them play a little more loosely.”