Cal Poly

Longtime foes Cal Poly, Southern Utah meet for the first time in a Big Sky game

As a head coach, Southern Utah’s Ed Lamb has more experience coaching against the Cal Poly football team’s triple-option offense than anyone else in the Big Sky Conference.

Lamb, also the defensive mastermind for the Thunderbirds, played against Rich Ellerson’s potent offense in 2008, and as co-members of the Great West Conference, Lamb has faced off with current Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh three times.

Could that familiarity give Southern Utah (1-4, 1-0 Big Sky) an edge coming into today’s 6:05 p.m. game against Cal Poly (1-3, 0-1 Big Sky) at Alex G. Spanos Stadium?

“I don’t know if it would be an edge,” Lamb said. “I certainly think that any time over the years, the option team always seems to have the edge schematically because they’ve seen and done it all. I can definitely say I feel an edge over every other prior year. The first year was the most difficult.”

In Lamb’s first year, Ramses Barden and Co. led the Mustangs to a 69-41 shootout victory, one in what ended up being a string of nine consecutive Cal Poly victories in the series.

Lamb and the Thunderbirds finally ended the streak with a 20-7 victory in Cedar City, Utah, in 2010. Walsh got Cal Poly back on the winning side with a 31-27 victory in 2011.

But that was the most recent meeting between the two.

When the two programs made the jump, along with Great West mates UC Davis and North Dakota, to the Big Sky for 2012, Cal Poly and Southern Utah were not designated as rivals in the 13-team conference.

At that point, the Mustangs and Thunderbirds had played every season for 14 straight years and 25 of the past 26 overall.

Since teams play an eight-game schedule in the Big Sky, opponents are paired with two annual rivals and play the remaining teams on a rotating basis.

Southern Utah and Cal Poly missed each other in their first two seasons in the Big Sky, and while that means that Thunderbirds’ defenders have little personal experience to draw upon, Walsh doesn’t doubt that Lamb will have his team prepared.

Though the series was interrupted, Walsh hasn’t lost any respect for Southern Utah and calls the program the most underrated in the Big Sky.

“His plan will be solid,” Walsh said. “I do know that he’s a good coach. He really understands what he’s doing, and I think his players respond to what they do on defense very well, too. “I think their offense is explosive, but their defense is legit.”

Southern Utah’s offense has yet to really take off this season. Before last week’s conference-opening 31-28 win over Weber State, the Thunderbirds hadn’t scored more than 19 points in a game and were averaging just 13.8 points per game.

Much of that had to do with the schedule.

Southern Utah started the season 0-4 with losses at FBS opponents Nevada and Fresno State and defeats against FCS powers South Dakota State, which coming into this week ranked ninth in The Sports Network top 25, and Southeastern Louisiana, which ranks 11th.

But opponents have to be wary of offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, a first-year Thunderbirds assistant who has held high-profile jobs all over the country.

Crowton had successful runs as the head coach at both BYU and Louisiana Tech and as the offensive coordinator at Oregon. He also spent time as the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and LSU.

Cal Poly’s defensive performance against what has been a balanced and multi-pronged offense could be the key to victory today.

The Mustangs stymied Portland State in the home opener, a 42-14 nonconference game two weeks ago where the defense took a shutout into the fourth quarter.

It was a completely different story in last week’s 38-35 loss to Northern Arizona. Cal Poly’s defense struggled to stop the Lumberjacks, and the Mustangs returned to San Luis Obispo bemoaning the defensive miscues that led to the last-minute loss.

Against Northern Arizona, “We didn’t come out as fired up as we did in our home opener against Portland State,” junior linebacker Tu’uta Inoke said. “We just have to just keep working and fight through all that, play fast, physical Cal Poly defense.”