LARAMIE, Wyo — When Nico Molino jumped up and secured the ball to seal the Cal Poly football team’s 24-22 victory over Wyoming with a game-clinching interception on Saturday, it signaled more than just the first FBS upset in the Tim Walsh era.
Molino’s pick came against a passing play that torched the Mustangs last season, when they allowed the second most passing yards in the entire FCS.
If one particular play did them in, it was the smash route combo.
On the field, the outside receiver runs a hitch pattern, while the inside receiver runs a corner route over the top, causing come confusion between the cornerback and safety.
On Saturday, when the Cowboys (0-3) were desperate for a score with 1:37 left in the fourth quarter, Wyoming coaches went to the play that probably stood out in their pregame film study, the smash.
But there is no accounting for offseason change.
“We have a completely different backfield,” Molino said, “different coaches, different players, everything. The whole attitude is different, and that’s just an example of it right there. Last year, that would have gashed us 50 times, and this year it’s not even a thought.”
To have exorcised some smash demons and come up with such a game-changing play in a big moment was further evidence that the Cal Poly pass coverage has improved.
After last season, the Mustangs had almost nowhere to go but up, and Saturday’s game came against Cowboys backup quarterback Colby Kirkegaard, but progress is progress. With an entirely new defensive backfield, only one starter back on the defensive line, a new defensive coordinator and a new secondary coach, the Mustangs allowed Wyoming only 123 passing yards. Kirkegaard was 15 of 23 with no touchdowns.
Cal Poly (2-0) also had three interceptions in a 41-14 victory against San Diego in the season opener two weeks ago.
The Mustangs did return plenty of experience in their 4-3 defense at linebacker, but that depth took a hit Saturday.
Drowned out in Cal Poly’s first victory over an FBS program since 2008, the only such upset in 20 FCS-FBS games on Saturday, was a knee sprain to junior outside linebacker Johnny Millard.
Millard, who had five tackles, an interception and two quarterback hurries against San Diego, assisted on just one tackle against Wyoming before he had to leave.
Walsh said Millard was doubtful for this week’s game against visiting Big Sky Conference and horeshoe trophy rival UC Davis. Millard could possibly sit out multiple games, but he suffered a similar injury last season and didn’t miss any games.
In Millard’s place, Wisconsin transfer Cameron Ontko showcased some impressive strength and speed to rack up nine tackles against the Cowboys, second only to team leader Kennith Jackson. The senior middle linebacker had 10 tackles and half of a tackle for loss.
Walsh was not completely sold on the defense’s turnaround. Ontko and others still have room for improvement, but things are going in the right direction.
“The last two weeks,” Walsh said, “we’ve improved from a numbers standpoint, but we still have some things to clean up.
“Hopefully, what’s going to happen is we’re going to continue to build confidence by what we do.”