When Cameron Ontko moved west from Wisconsin in the offseason, he kept hearing about Davis.
Much like the rest of the country, the Ohio native wasn’t really aware of what Davis was. All he needed to know was that beating Davis matters to Cal Poly football.
“I’ve heard about this game ever since I got here,” the sophomore transfer linebacker said. “Coaches preaching about Davis. Players preaching about Davis. Now it’s time to go. This is one of our biggest games of the year.”
UC Davis (1-2) arrives at Alex G. Spanos Stadium for tonight’s 6:05 kickoff against the host Mustangs (2-0) in the annual rivalry game, the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe.
Cal Poly is still riding the high of last week’s 24-22 victory at Wyoming, the first upset of an FBS program under fourth-year head coach Tim Walsh. As far as most are concerned, the Mustangs are favored to beat the Aggies in the rivals’ first game in the Big Sky Conference.
But perception has hardly mattered in each of the past three seasons as members of the Great West Conference. UC Davis owns a three-game winning streak in the rivalry, including a particularly heartbreaking 21-20 Cal Poly loss in the 2010 season finale.
Two of the past three losses shut the door on any hopes the Mustangs had of at-large FCS playoff berths. Cal Poly also blew halftime leads in two of the past three against the Aggies.
And there is a group of seniors who could graduate this season without ever taking possession of the golden horseshoe trophy as an active member of the team if the Mustangs lose again.
“We have always been favored, and I don’t know what it is,” Cal Poly senior center Geoff Hyde said.
“This coaching staff hasn’t beaten Davis, and I haven’t beaten Davis either. It’s huge. It’s a motivator. Everybody wants to get that horseshoe.”
Perhaps nobody wants it more than Walsh, who’s seemed to take the second-half collapses and last year’s disappointing start as genuine critiques to the job he’s done since taking over in San Luis Obispo in 2009.
The Mustangs led 20-0 in the first half of the 2010 loss before watching UC Davis quarterback Randy Wright toss two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minute as the Cal Poly offense sputtered.
In front of a stunned home crowd, that defeat prevented the Mustangs from winning the minimum number of games against Division I opposition recommended to qualify for an at-large playoff berth.
Last season’s 24-17 loss — where Cal Poly fell behind 21-3 at the half — effectively shut the door on the Mustangs’ playoff chase, too. Cal Poly would have needed to sweep the final three games of the season, but the horseshoe loss rendered the final two contests moot in that regard.
“This team,” Walsh said, “has taken things from us the last couple years. Not only have they taken the horseshoe, they probably have taken playoff opportunities from us.
“And I think I have to take some responsibility that we maybe haven’t been as good or as sharp as we should have been emotionally and physically against Davis for the entire 60 minutes.
“The bottom line thing is they’ve won the football games. I’m taking it personally, and I hope our players are taking it personally as well.”
This will also be Walsh’s last chance to finally beat UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs as head coach at Cal Poly. The two met multiple times during Walsh’s 14-year stint as head coach at Portland State, but since Walsh has been at Cal Poly, Biggs is perfect against Walsh head-to-head.
Now in his 20th year as head coach, Biggs will be stepping down after this season.
The Aggies coach couldn’t identify a common reason why his team has beaten Cal Poly each of past three years, but it is clear that as much as the Mustangs have let Ontko know the importance of the rivalry from their perspective, the game is just as emotional for UC Davis.
“Every game seemed to have its own character or identity,” Biggs said, “and I don’t think there’s anything that you could say that would say, ‘Well, Davis has just got their number because they’ve won the last three years.’ I don’t think it was that way at all. I just think each game kind of took its own course in different ways, and we were fortunate to come out on top.
“There’s been some spectacular games over the years that really go down to the last possession, and I think this might be one of those games.”