Even at 5-5, it’s still mathematically possible for the Cal Poly football team to not only make the FCS playoffs but to win at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title and even take the conference’s automatic playoff berth if the stars align.
The outside help the Mustangs need isn’t likely to come, but, technically, anything remains possible.
Come Saturday, that could be a different story, and the situation shouldn’t take long to develop since the Mustangs’ showdown with No. 3 Eastern Washington (8-2, 6-0 Big Sky) is scheduled for an early 12:40 p.m. kickoff to accommodate the Root Sports television broadcast.
A regional sports network owned by DirectTV and affiliated with Fox Sports, Root Sports has first rights to broadcast Big Sky games and will produce the first non-local college football broadcast at Cal Poly since 1980.
KSBY broadcast Mustangs football games each of the past two seasons but has not produced any this year.
The Mustangs men’s soccer team has had multiple matches with UC Santa Barbara televised by Fox in recent years, but this will be the first football broadcast since Alex G. Spanos Stadium completed its renovation in 2006.
And the stakes could not be higher.
The Eagles can clinch at least a share of their third Big Sky title in the past four years with a victory. Cal Poly (4-2 Big Sky) can remain in the hunt for a share of the title with a win.
A loss would eliminate the Mustangs altogether, and the outcome likely hinges on the matchup: Eastern Washington’s offense vs. Cal Poly’s defense.
The Eagles have the highest-rated passer in the FCS, junior quarterback Vernon Adams, leading an offense that scored on all eight of its possessions in a 54-29 victory over then-No. 5-ranked Montana State last week.
In that game, the Eagles set a conference record with 12.3 yards per play.
Adams leads the FCS with a passing efficiency rating of 192.2, and Eastern Washington is third in total offense (535.9 per game) and fourth in passing (350.4).
“They’re extremely efficient on offense,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes, and I don’t think they have any weaknesses.
“Normally, we could watch an opponent on offense and we could go, ‘Man, their left guard’s not very good or their right tackle is suspect, or maybe they’re not that fast with this wide receiver.’ They have no weaknesses. Every guy is a good or better player. They’re all good or really good, and obviously, the quarterback is extremely special.”
In a six-game winning streak, all against Big Sky opposition, Eastern Washington is beating its opponents by an average score of 43-23 and hasn’t been held under 34 points.
The Cal Poly defense, on the other hand, has been dominant during a five-game stretch where the Mustangs have won three games and held opponents to an average of 10.4 points and 271.6 yards per game.
Having lost at No. 7 Montana in overtime and falling 17-13 to No. 13 Northern Arizona, the Mustangs are being labeled the Big Sky’s hard-luck team by Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin.
The misfortune has not been the fault of the defense, which has transformed itself since allowing an average of 30 points and 428 yards through the first five games.
“We really kept it simple,” defensive coordinator Josh Brown said. “If you look at the last game, we only pressured three times, three snaps out of 73, and we just lined up and played base football, flew around and got turnovers and executed. That’s of been our motto here for the last five weeks, just keep chopping wood and keep doing what we do.”
QB uncertainty again
If people still listened to records, this would be the proverbial broken one.
Cal Poly could turn to another starting quarterback this week after Chris Brown led the Mustangs to victories in the past two.
Brown injured his ankle in Saturday’s 42-7 win over Sacramento State and did not participate in Tuesday’s practice.
That means Walsh may have to turn back to Dano Graves, who was 1-2 as a starter before he suffered a leg injury in the loss to Northern Arizona two weeks ago and has been on the mend ever since.
Walsh will make the decision later this week, and said he was comfortable with either option and also feels good about redshirt freshman Tanner Trosin playing if needed.
Both Brown and Graves “have shown flashes and both guys have played really good at times,” Walsh said. “but they’re not Peyton Manning where they can take a week off of practice and, in fairness to our team, expect to run the offense as efficiently as it needs to run.
“The guy that can practice will be the guy that gets the start.”
First interception was a long time coming Cal Poly senior cornerback Vante Smith-Johnson has been a consistent contributor since he was pressed into duty by injuries as a true freshman.
Four seasons almost completely ended before he was able to intercept a pass, but the streak finally ended against the Hornets.
“The reps are endless, just how many I took,” Smith-Johnson said, “and I just try to pride myself on just doing my job and letting things come to me, and one finally came.”
With Cal Poly holding a 21-7 lead, Smith-Johnson picked off a pass from Sacramento State quarterback Garrett Safron on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter. It was one of two interceptions for Cal Poly, which also saw junior linebacker Cameron Ontko snag his first career interception in the first quarter.
But Smith-Johnson’s was a little more personally significant.
“That’s my first that actually counted yet,” he said. “Another one somehow got a pass interference, and it just didn’t get counted my sophomore year. ... I thought I played it good, and I turn around and see a flag on the ground, and it ended up being on me. It’s one of those you just walk away from, but finally God blessed me one.
“It wasn’t weighing on me. My teammates were weighing on me. They just expected me to get one eventually. Hopefully, I get a few more and make them happy.”