This moment has been nearly four years in the making for Marcus Paige-Allen.
Sure, the Cal Poly defensive tackle is just a sophomore and in his first year starting for the Mustangs.
But those facts discount the waiting game Paige-Allen has played on his way to the field and particularly today’s Big Sky Conference rivalry game against his hometown Sacramento State Hornets.
Just before joining Cal Poly for training camp as a freshman in 2011, Paige-Allen injured his knee doing individual workouts and grayshirted the season, taking classes part time to avoid losing eligibility.
He redshirted the following season, and last year, Paige-Allen played in just one game as a redshirt freshman.
Now, the Long Beach native is starting on the defensive line and ranks sixth on the Mustangs (3-3, 2-1 Big Sky) with 25 tackles, 2.5 for loss, including a sack.
The Hornets (4-3, 1-2 Big Sky) might have been the leading candidate to land Paige-Allen — the nephew of NFL Hall of Fame offensive linemen Larry Allen, who played for Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh at Sonoma State — if not for a fateful trip to the local barbershop for former Mustangs defensive line coach Jamar Cain.
During a haircut, another relative recommended Cain venture to Sacramento Sheldon High, where Paige-Allen was a Delta River League co-defensive player of the year. Cain did, and Paige-Allen was signing a national letter of intent shortly after.
It’s taken Paige-Allen a while to get back to Sacramento, but that’s only made the frenzy build. “I’m proud to say I’m getting school knocked out of the way,” Paige-Allen said, “but it’s only my redshirt sophomore year.
“I honestly feel like I had to wait until I was ready, and I’m glad that everything worked out the way it has. The way I’ve been waiting to go and also to play against Sac State is just real exciting.”
Stopping the Hornets will likely be the key for Paige-Allen and the Cal Poly defense.
Sacramento State is ninth in the country in averaging 41 points. The Hornets are also ninth in the FCS with 292 passing yards per game and feature a running attack that rolls up nearly 200 on average to keep opposing defenses honest in their approach.
Senior quarterback Garrett Safron has had four runs of 50 yards or more, including touchdown runs of 73 and 70 yards.
Safron has also hit sophomore receiver Nnamdi Agude for a 75-yard touchdown pass.
For Paige-Allen and a defensive line that has fought through injury and counts two sophomore starters and true freshman Fino Elisaia as a key reserve, the challenge will be keeping Safron in the pocket.
Cal Poly’s defensive backs, which have depth issues as well, will have to play like they did against Weber State last week, when the Mustangs limited another high-ranking passing attack in the FCS to just 97 yards when the Wildcats had been averaging more than 270.
“For the DBs,” senior safety Jordan Williams said, “no big plays, stay on top of everything, and if we eliminate those, its puts our whole team in a better position to win the game.” It’s also a homecoming of sorts for Williams, a product of Tracy High, which is about an hour’s drive from Sacramento.
Williams was there for the last trip to Sacramento State, when the Hornets sullied a 7-0 record to start 2012 for Cal Poly with a 35-29 upset, but he only played a reserve role.
Now, Williams is a senior leader and started last season’s game, when the Mustangs shut down Sacramento State, intercepted Safron twice and used three passing touchdowns to build a 21-7 halftime lead en route to a 42-7 victory.
“I look at it as a new year, a new team,” Williams said. “Sure, there’s some carryover, but if we do come out with that same force that quickly and jump on them, that would be awesome.”
For the Cal Poly defense this season, it’s been more like new week, new team.
The Mustangs’ defense was dominant in a 42-14 win over Portland State in the home opener, where the Vikings were shut out until the fourth quarter.
Then, Cal Poly gave up 514 yards of total offense in a 38-35 loss at Northern Arizona the following week and let Southern Utah quarterback Ammon Olson pass for 402 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-39 Mustangs victory going into last week’s solid defensive effort at Weber State.
“I jumped to conclusions after Portland State,” Walsh said, “So, I’m going to be somewhat conservative in what I say. We’re capable of playing very well on defense, but being capable and doing it, that’s the thing.
“Defensively, we’re playing better, but will we play better against a very high-potent offense? We’d like to say that they can’t get over 30 points. If we hold them to the 20s, we have a chance.”