The Cal Poly football team’s defense entered the season as a heralded unit, and the Mustangs have shown exactly why that was the case in the past month.
And they’ve done it in spite of losing a couple key players while several more have limped off and on the field.
Cal Poly has been especially stingy the past four games, allowing Big Sky Conference opponents an average of just 10.7 points per game during the span.
One key to the stat: The Mustangs are getting opposing offenses off the field.
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Cal Poly leads the Big Sky and ranks 18th in the country in third-down percentage defense, allowing conversions just one third of the time.
This all comes with a secondary that has been banged up. Senior starting cornerbacks Bijon Samoodi and Vante Smith-Johnson have overcome nagging injuries. Senior safety Matt Reza made a spectacular interception in the fourth game of the season at Portland State but hasn’t taken the field since.
Cal Poly’s front seven has received plenty of credit for the defensive performance, but the Mustangs have suffered some losses on the defensive line, too.
After sitting out at practice during the week, junior defensive end Jake Irwin missed last week’s 34-16 victory at UC Davis with hip and knee injuries.
“We took him, and we expected him” to play, Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “He warmed up and did everything Saturday we asked him to, but he just couldn’t do it.”
The Mustangs were already without junior defensive end Wesley Flowers, who Walsh said was suspended for the season for a violation of unspecified team rules.
Junior defensive tackle Chris Lawrence has also been in and out of the lineup, and the injuries have given seniors Barrett Wangara and Nick Leyden and redshirt freshman Josh Letuligasenoa opportunities to contribute.
And unlike on offense, where injuries to skill players have had a devastating effect, the defense has sustained admirably.
OVER ’TIL IT’S OVER
Cal Poly has not yet been mathematically eliminated from winning the Big Sky Conference title or making the FCS playoffs, but the Mustangs will need some wacky outcomes for things to stay that way.
Scenarios exist where as many as six teams could share the conference title with the Mustangs or as few as one other. Cal Poly has no chance to win it outright, but to even get a share, not only do the Mustangs need to win their final three games, but unbeaten conference front-runners Montana State and Eastern Washington need to lose at least two of their final three as well.
Tiebreakers would decide which first-place team would get the Big Sky’s automatic playoff berth. Cal Poly is on the outside of the bubble for an at-large berth, but the Mustangs can still satisfy the minimum of seven Division I victories recommended by the NCAA for consideration.
LEADING THE NATION
Cal Poly still leads the FCS with 295.8 rushing yards per game, but the Mustangs needed all 414 of their yards on the ground against UC Davis to keep from getting leapfrogged by Mercer.
Mercer ran for 397 yards in a 51-26 victory over Davidson last week and sits second in the FCS rushing rankings this week with 292.3 yards per game. Had the Mustangs not upped their rushing average, they would have also been passed by Coastal Carolina, which ranks third with 293.7 rushing yards per game.
Cal Poly punter Paul Hundley, the Mustangs’ long-field punting specialist, ranks sixth in the FCS with a 44.3-yard average.
But Hundley ranks just fourth in the Big Sky, which is led by national leader Kyle Loomis
(47.2) of Portland State.