Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin doesn’t look at Cal Poly and see a 5-5 team with a near 90-degree incline between it and a playoff spot.
Sitting in a three-way tie for fourth place in the Big Sky Conference, the Mustangs could easily be occupying first or second to Baldwin, whose Eagles are 6-0 and atop the standings, and it all has to do with a stout defense.
“It’s not just coach talk,” Baldwin said. “They are inches away from being undefeated in this conference as well.
“The proof is in what’s on film, and the numbers that show up. You have to be really on point offensively to earn yards against them.”
Heading into Saturday’s 12:40 p.m. showdown, both teams are on a tremendous roll in certain facets.
For No. 3 Eastern Washington (8-2), its passing offense is the most efficient in the FCS, and the Eagles are coming off a dominant 54-29 victory over No. 8 Montana State where they scored touchdowns on all eight of their offensive possessions.
The Mustangs (4-2 Big Sky) have been equally stingy in recent weeks.
Cal Poly has held three of its past five opponents to less than 100 rushing yards, and over the same span, the Mustangs have given up just 10.4 points and 271.6 yards of total offense per game.
Included in those games is a 21-14 loss to No. 7 Montana where the Grizzlies needed a touchdown in the final seconds to force overtime, and a 17-13 loss to No. 12 Northern Arizona where the Lumberjacks offense scored just 10 before a fourth-quarter kick return for a touchdown won it.
Baldwin only sees a stout defensive line led by senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz, a veteran group of speedy linebackers and a versatile secondary.
“Up front, they’re extremely well coached, and they play with tremendous effort,” Baldwin said. “They have at least one defensive lineman who definitely has the ability to play at any level and will probably get a chance to play past here.”
The Mustangs linebackers are “not just going to come there and tackle you. They’re going to come with some thump,” Baldwin said.
And with safeties Alex Hubbard and Jordan Williams teaming for three interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, “it’s like they’re playing four corners,” Baldwin said. “Those safeties have corner ability in how they move and have cover skills. They also come downhill and hit and make tackles.”
Cal Poly’s defense is the feared unit it set out to become in the preseason, hoping to be the foundation for a team whose offense would be grooming a new quarterback.
The recipe was simple.
“There’ll be times when we take some risks and do some different things,” second-year Mustangs defensive coordinator Josh Brown said, “but for the most part, we’re going to line up, play sound technique and do what we do.”
Still, the season did not start as envisioned. The Mustangs allowed an average of 30 points and 428 yards per game to its first five opponents.
Part of that can be attributed to strength of schedule. Cal Poly lost back-to-back games to nationally ranked FBS program Fresno State, a still undefeated team with one of the most potent passing attacks in the country, and the Bulldogs’ Mountain West Conference rival Colorado State.
But there was no excusing a poor overall performance in a 24-10 loss to nonscholarship FCS program Yale in early October.
“The loss to Yale was really the turning point for us,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “We didn’t play with the energy and the emotion. … Defensively, we played flat, just a real poor performance.”
Walsh said in the time since, intensity has been up at practice, and despite crushing losses in the interim, the defense has not let up.
Playoff chances are still slim. Cal Poly needs to win its last two games just to gain the minimum number of victories for consideration. A myriad of other unlikely outcomes would need to take place around the conference for the Mustangs to get the Big Sky’s automatic playoff berth.
Cal Poly can tie for the conference title at best, and even that prospect is a long shot.
But as dwindling as the hopes are at this point, all is lost with a defeat, and the outcome rests on the shoulders of the Mustangs defense.
“My message to our guys was they’re one of the top offenses in the conference, and we’re one of the top defenses,” Brown
said. “It’s going to come down to whoever executes better on Saturday.”