The Cal Poly football team is playing at its peak.
“I hate to say it,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said following Saturday’s 42-7 home victory over Sacramento State, “we’re one of the best teams in the country. We may not get a chance to prove it, but we can prove it next Saturday.”
If only it hadn’t taken so long to get to this point.
Unranked Cal Poly (5-5, 4-2 Big West) is still mathematically alive for a share of the Big Sky Conference title, and victories in the next two weeks, including a potentially pivotal matchup against visiting conference frontrunner Eastern Washington (8-2, 6-0 Big Sky) next weekend, will give them enough victories to qualify for an at-large FCS playoff berth.
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But because of a midseason offensive slump that included a disappointing home loss to Yale and nail-biting conference defeats at Montana and home to Northern Arizona, winning out might not be good enough to get the Mustangs back into the postseason.
“The last four or five weeks, we have played good enough to be 6-0 in the Big Sky right now,” Walsh said. “If the committee can’t see that, they’re blind. We can’t control what a committee’s going to say. We know we have to beat Eastern Washington and that’s a difficult task but that’s what we have to do to be considered.”
Certainly, during that span, the Cal Poly defense has to be considered one of the best in the FCS.
The Mustangs have allowed an average of 12.2 points per game over the past five weeks, and the trend continued Saturday.
Sacramento State (4-6, 3-3 Big Sky) put up 48 points in an overtime loss to Montana last week with quarterback Garrett Safron responsible for 505 yards of total offense and six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Against Cal Poly, Safron passed for 204 yards and a touchdown and ran for 25 yards on 10 attempts. He was intercepted twice, once each by senior cornerback Vante Smith Johnson and junior linebacker Cameron Ontko. It was the first career interception for each Mustangs defender.
“Most of the teams we play before we play them,” Smith-Johnson said, “they come in against us having 400 yards of this, 400 yards of that, and our goal is to just hold them out of the end zone and hold them to field goals because you can’t beat our team kicking field goals. And that’s what we pride ourselves on, just playing hard and forcing them to make turnovers eventually.”
The Hornets had just 62 yards of offense after Safron limped off the field at the half with what appeared to be a minor leg injury. Safron played the rest of the game, but the Sacramento State offense went scoreless and had four three-and-out possessions in the second half.
“They played good defense,” Sacramento State head coach Marshall Sperbeck said, “but we knew that coming in that they were a top defense in the conference. In the second half, Garrett got dinged up a little bit, and give them credit; they outplayed us.”
With slotback Kristaan Ivory and fullback Akaninyene Umoh each rushing for more than 100 yards, the Mustangs did most of their offensive damage on the ground, but of the six completions by sophomore quarterback Chris Brown in his second straight start since returning from a hip injury, four of them went for touchdowns.
The four passing scores were the most by a Cal Poly quarterback since Tony Smith tied the program record with six in 2009.
“The coaches did a really good job of setting certain plays up if we needed to throw the ball,” said Brown, who was 6-of-10 passing. “Our O-line was doing a good job of getting to the right guys, getting to the mike backer. It was just a matter of taking what we can get.”
Umoh ran for a game-high 129 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown. In his most extensive action since an overtime loss at Montana three weeks ago, Ivory ran for 118 yards on 11 carries.
It was Ivory’s first 100-yard game since playing the Grizzlies, and it was the third time this season Cal Poly, the FCS leader in rushing yards per game, had two different runners rack up more than 100 yards in a single game.
And after scoring fewer than 14 points in each of their past three losses, the Mustangs had 34 in a victory at UC Davis last week before Saturday’s outburst.
Walsh praised offensive coordinator Saga Tuitele’s adjustments each of the past two weeks for getting the offense back to its basics and making it harder to defend.
Tuitele came with Walsh to Cal Poly in 2009 but took over play-calling duties just prior to this season, the first without former standout quarterback Andre Broadous under center since the current staff’s first season in San Luis Obispo.
All the offseason transition, which included a four-man quarterback competition that lasted throughout training camp, seems finally complete.
“It took us a while to catch a rhythm,” Brown said. “We had a new quarterback, new coaches in the booth. We finally got on that roll, and we’re moving.”