Aside from today’s season finale at Northern Colorado, another game was fresh in the mind of Cal Poly football slotback Kristaan Ivory this week.
“South Alabama,” the junior said.
Two years ago, the Mustangs went to Mobile, Ala., to play a season finale with next to nothing at stake and whipped the FBS-transitioning Jaguars 41-10.
At 5-5 going into that one, the playoffs were out. The conference title was decided. All Cal Poly had left for motivation was to finish with a winning record.
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Even a winning mark is out of the question this season. At best, the Mustangs can finish .500 by wining today’s 11:05 a.m. matchup.
Still, Ivory was a freshman on the team that gave South Alabama its first home loss in program history. There is something left to play for, and it’s meaningful to the guys in the jerseys.
“The big thing we want to do this weekend is just honor all of our seniors,” Ivory said. “That’s the last time the 2013 team is going to be able to play together.”
For Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, a victory would prevent his second losing seasons in five years at the helm. The Mustangs were 4-7 in Walsh’s first year in 2009. They were 7-4 in 2010 and 6-5 in 2011 before making a second-round FCS playoff run in a 9-3 season last year.
More important to Walsh than the overall mark is Cal Poly’s standing in its second year in the Big Sky Conference. The Mustangs (4-5, 4-3 Big Sky) were tri-conference champions last season. Depending on today’s outcome, they can finish as high as fourth or as low as a three-way tie for seventh in the 13-team conference.
“The most important thing is our conference standing,” Walsh said. “If we went 5-3, then I think you look at it, and you say a 13-team league, you come in fourth place, it’s not great, but it’s the best we can be right now.
“If we don’t win, we’re 4-4, and we’re going to be tied with a bunch of teams, and then it’s going to look like you came in eighth or ninth, tied for seventh or whatever you did.”
Standing in the way are the Bears, who have lost 10 in a row since opening the season with a 31-10 victory over NAIA Langston (Okla.).
Northern Colorado had a respectable 5-6, fourth-place season last year, but since moving up to the FCS level from Division II in 2006, the Bears are just 15-74. They had their first winless season since 1920 in 2011, and a loss today would ensure them their third one-win season since that jump to Division I seven years ago.
Walsh is respectful of Northern Colorado’s rushing offense.
Weekend forecasts are calling for chances of snowfall and temperature highs in the low 40s.
This week in practice, Walsh was preparing to face a steady dose of 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior Bears running back Tromaine Dennis.
With those conditions and the fact the Bears offensive line averages more than 290 pounds, Northern Colorado might be best served trying to exploit its size advantage over the Cal Poly defensive front.
That front, however, has been a strength during a season where the Mustangs’ offense has struggled with injury and consistency.
The 35 points Cal Poly gave up in a loss to Eastern Washington last week was the most since allowing 41 to Fresno State the second week of the season, and in the five games leading up to the showdown with the Eagles, the Mustangs defense was allowing just 12.2 points per game.
“We got one goal,” Cal Poly senior cornerback Vante Smith-Johnson said, “and that’s to limit them to zero points, because that’s the only way our defense can play special. We want to see a goose egg. So, we’re practicing hard, playing hard and acting like this is another championship game, for us at least.”
The Mustangs might have been playing for another championship if not for two deflating midseason losses.
In both a 21-14 overtime loss at No. 5 Montana and a 17-13 home loss to No. 10 Northern Arizona, Cal Poly held fourth-quarter leads that were lost following pivotal special-teams follies.
Hit a field goal in the final minutes against the Grizzlies and deny the Lumberjacks a touchdown return, and the Mustangs likely hold on to win both games.
And that’s to say nothing of the devastating injuries that saw three key offensive starters lost for the season, still more battling nagging sprains and a revolving door at quarterback.
“It’s been kind of an up-and-down season,” Ivory said. “We had some good wins, some bad losses.
“We were just trying to find our ourselves, find identity. This year, we really didn’t have our identity at the beginning of the year. If we were better, we would have found a way to win those closer games. That’s what good teams do. Unfortunately, we just came up short this year.”