Each of the past two seasons, the Big Sky Conference football matchup between Cal Poly and Northern Arizona has been a playoff game of sorts.
Two years ago, the regular-season finale between the Mustangs and Lumberjacks was for a share of the conference title. The loser, Northern Arizona, ended up being left out of the FCS playoffs.
In the third conference game of 2013, Cal Poly needed to beat the Lumberjacks to keep pace for one of the top spots in the Big Sky standings. This time, the Mustangs lost the pivotal game and stayed home for the postseason.
Last year’s game, a 17-13 Northern Arizona victory at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, could have easily gone either way. Perhaps the defining play — what created separation between a nationally ranked second-place-finishing playoff qualifier and an unranked fourth-place finisher — came on Cal Poly’s last good chance to retake the lead in the fourth quarter.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
And it was a whopper.
Lumberjacks senior linebacker Ryan Reardon flew over the Mustangs’ offensive line on fourth-and-1 at his own 35-yard line to drag down quarterback Dano Graves for a loss and a turnover with five minutes left to play.
The tackle was No. 1 on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 countdown, owns more than 20,000 views on YouTube and earned Reardon national player of the week kudos.
“It was a moment in time where we needed something magical to happen, and it did,” Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers said this week. “I’d love to sit here and say we could time that out every time, but there’s no way you can. That was just a moment in time, a great moment for us.”
For today’s 4 p.m. Big Sky-opening game at Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz., it’s too early to tell what the implications of a win or a loss could mean for the Mustangs (1-2) or Lumberjacks (2-2).
And the depth and experience that led to last year’s low-scoring slugfest has been replaced by two young teams with plenty of uncertainty coming into the season.
Along with four-year 1,000-yard rusher Zach Bauman, Northern Arizona lost 70 percent of its tackles from a senior-dominated defense.
The Lumberjacks have four newcomers listed on the two-deep along the defensive line alone. The hope for Northern Arizona is that all of its first-year starters have settled in enough during nonconference play to contend in the Big Sky.
“We had a lot to learn about our football team in the first four games,” Souers said. “It’s been an educational process for certain.
“The games at this time of the year are the games that count most. It’s a new opportunity to pick things up and to start bringing your best.”
Cal Poly was in a similar spot.
The Mustangs were going to be young and inexperienced at several key positions even before senior slotback Kristaan Ivory and four other players became embroiled in an alleged conspiracy to rob an alleged drug dealer at a Cal Poly frat house in August.
The Mustangs don’t have a single senior playing along the offensive line. True freshman slotback Lance Mudd is getting a chance to play right away, and fellow true freshman slotback Alex Suchesk is back on the travel roster after senior Kenny Mitchell was hurt this week in practice.
Cal Poly also has a young defensive line that started three sophomores in the season-opening 28-10 loss at New Mexico State.
So, the casts are very different from those of years past, but even though Reardon is gone, Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said the team watched the footage of what became known as the “Superman Play” more than a few times this week, picking apart the aspects where the Mustangs blockers could have prevented it had they been more focused.
“I don’t think we did a good job of executing it up front,” Walsh said. “You’ve got to still run through your area that you’re running through and not take it for granted that the guy can’t jump over the top of you if you stay too low and put your head down.
“The ability to move the football forward on a consistent basis is the key for us against a team that’s played us so well. They did a good job of limiting us.”
During a dominant 42-14 win over Portland State last week, Cal Poly showed it can score when its offense gains ground on first down.
Perhaps the Mustangs’ first-year starters are settling in, too.
Quarterback Chris Brown looks comfortable. The junior is leading the team with 104 rushing yards per game and has accounted for half the team’s touchdowns.
Brown missed last year’s game against Northern Arizona with an injury, and Souers doesn’t expect defense to come easy.
“This year with Chris Brown running it,” Souers said, “they have a whole different dimension with his speed and athleticism.”
“They have brought new dimensions to the option look, and that’s one thing about the offense in the triple option, it’s constantly evolving. And as it evolves, you can’t stay with what might have worked in a given year. You have to be able to evolve with it,” he said.