Looking back, the Cal Poly football team’s 34-17 loss to Eastern Washington last year wasn’t extremely lopsided.
The Mustangs traded scores to open the game, trailed 14-10 early in the second quarter and were outscored10-7 in the second half.
But in the heat of a nonconference game between national powers that had theoretical impact on playoff seeding and poll rankings, falling behind wasn’t a viable option and cranked on the pressure.
“We pushed the panic button a little bit,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, spreading blame to coaches as well as players. “All of a sudden, you don’t play as one. You’re trying to make a play here and make a play here, not playing within the scheme.”
That led to a perception that quarterback Vernon Adams and the Eagles had a dominant showing. They did run for 254 yards at 5.4 yards per carry, but Adams was just 19-of-29 passing, averaging 9.9 yards per completion.
With three touchdowns and an interception, it will hardly be remembered as one of Adams’ best performances, but the plays he made — including a 43-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Kaufman that began a string of four consecutive scores — stung Cal Poly by exposing the Mustangs’ own busted coverages.
“Everywhere on the field last year, we were having busts,” senior safety Alex Hubbard said. “I busted, the other safety busted, the corners busted. The linebackers, the D-line, everywhere, we were off.
“I have no idea why. That’s the only game we feel like we didn’t come to play.”
Going into today’s 12:40 p.m. showdown at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, the No. 3 Eagles (8-2, 6-0 Big Sky Conference) are once again one of the nation’s best. They’re on pace for an outright Big Sky title and are sure to be among the favorites for their second national title since 2010 when the FCS playoffs kick off in two weeks.
Cal Poly (5-5, 4-2 Big Sky) is mathematically still alive for a playoff spot and a share of the conference title, but the Mustangs season has been plagued by injury and strayed from the original plan and a top-15 preseason ranking.
Despite an inconsistent offense, the Cal Poly defense has found its form in the second half of the season. In the past five weeks, the Mustangs are holding opponents to 10.4 points and 271.6 yards of total offense per game.
Even though the Eagles come in with the most efficient passing offense in the FCS, and Adams has developed into a legitimate player of the year candidate, Cal Poly’s defensive performance makes the Mustangs believe they can compete and put off the end of their Big Sky title and playoff hopes for at least one more week.
“We improved, too,” Hubbard said. “Our defense has been flying around, hitting all our assignments, doing all our jobs. We just have to keep it going, keep it rolling and do our assignments this week.”
Cal Poly also has to contend with an Eastern Washington defense that held the Mustangs offense scoreless on six straight drives during the decisive swing of last year’s game.
Though the Eagles are allowing an average of 33.3 points over the past three games, Eastern Washington had a sound gameplan for Cal Poly’s option attack last season.
The Mustangs were 0 for 2 on fourth-down conversions, lost two fumbles and threw an interception against the Eagles in that game.
“They have shown that people can score on them,” Walsh said, “but a couple things they have. They’re big up front, really big, and that caused us some problems last year, too, and they’ve got the same guys. We’ve got to be able to win the line of scrimmage on offense.”
While Cal Poly has scored 34 and 42 points in its past two games, the Mustangs were held to 14 or less in previous showdowns against Big Sky championship contenders Northern Arizona and Montana.
It would appear a high-scoring shootout like the Mustangs and Eagles played in 53-51 triple-overtime game at Spanos Stadium in 2011 might benefit Eastern Washington.
Cal Poly would prefer to play a lower-scoring game, and that’s something the Eagles are preparing for as well, despite being held to fewer than 34 points just once all season.
“You’re going to get in different types of college football games,” Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin said. “My main goal just like any of these coaches is to find a way to win the football game.
“You have to make adjustments once you’re in that type of ballgame. I think that’s the biggest thing. You have to be ready to adjust depending on the flow of the ballgame or the kind of game it runs into.”