Things looked desperate after the Cal Poly football team lost three of its first four games, including a heart-breaking Big Sky Conference-opener at Northern Arizona.
It was there in Flagstaff, Ariz., where senior defensive tackle Chris Lawrence laid out a challenge to the Mustangs: Either turn things around and start winning to save the season or croak and give up.
So, Cal Poly (4-3, 3-1 Big Sky) began to win, taking three straight games including last week’s 56-27 victory at rival Sacramento State, and it was all done with an eye toward this week — and the next, to be honest.
The Mustangs welcome No. 7 Montana (5-2, 3-0 Big Sky) tonight at 6:05, and a victory will wipe away all the damage done by those early losses and position Cal Poly right back into the FCS playoff hunt. A follow-up win at home over No. 10 Montana State (6-2, 4-0 Big Sky) would be the dream scenario.
“We’re embracing it,” junior cornerback Karlton Dennis said. “We’re ready for the challenge to show the Big Sky that we’re ready to run with any of the frontrunners. And this is our chance to prove that. If we just continue to play our game the way we played last week, I don’t think there’s anyone that can stop us.”
To keep the winning streak going, Cal Poly will have to avenge a crushing defeat from last season.
The Mustangs were prepared to topple the Grizzlies in Missoula, Mont., in 2013 and were leading for most of the game until Montana struck back in the final two minute to send it into overtime, where the Grizzlies eventually won 21-14.
In that game, Cal Poly was ready to go up by two scores when Montana blocked a 26-yard field-goal attempt with 2:17 left. Quarterback Jordan Johnson led the Grizzlies on a 15-play, 88-yard scoring drive capped by a 26-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Montana’s only other score in regulation came after the Grizzlies blocked a punt in Mustangs territory in the first quarter.
The key for Cal Poly this time around would be to avoid the big mistake. It certainly doesn’t appear as if the Grizzlies are going to commit any game-changing errors.
Montana leads the conference and ranks second in the FCS in turnovers lost. The Grizzlies have lost just one fumble all season and have thrown just three interceptions. Only Albany, which has lost just three turnovers, has been more careful with the ball.
“That’s their deal,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “They are about as solid of a football team as you can be. When you look at them, and you look at what they do and their quarterback, who’s extremely smart with the football and won’t throw it to the wrong guy, they aren’t going to make plays that that go backward.
“You take that physicality that they have, plus the maturity they have as a team, they play the same every week, and that’s championship football. It’s something we’re learning.”
Though last year’s defeat was heartbreaking, it is also somewhat of a confidence-booster.
Cal Poly safety Jordan Williams, now a senior, intercepted Johnson to help prevent a Montana score. The Mustangs also recovered a Grizzlies fumble.
Additionally, Cal Poly’s defense has been effective at forcing turnovers during the recent winning streak.
In the past three games, the Mustangs had four interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
They’ve had at least one of each in each of those games, including two interceptions of standout Sacramento State senior quarterback Garrett Safron, who became the Hornets’ all-time leading passer last week.
The turnovers represent a big improvement for the Cal Poly defense, particularly in the secondary. In the first four games combined, the Mustangs forced only three turnovers, and the defense has improved overall as well.
Allowing 414.3 yards per game, Cal Poly ranks fourth in the 13-team Big Sky, and much credit goes to a secondary that has stepped up since allowing 403 yards and three touchdowns through the air in a 42-39 victory over Southern Utah earlier this month.
“I would definitely say we’re trusting each other in the secondary,” Dennis said. “I’m trusting my safeties, and the safeties are trusting the corners to be in the right spot, and we’re playing faster. If you notice from the first week to this week now, we’re playing faster, and that always speeds things up and helps our pass defense.
“We’re starting to practice with the intent to get to the ball. That’s why we’ve been kind of ballhawks lately, taking picks out of the air. It just sort of translated into the games.”
Dennis, Walsh and the others acknowledged taking lessons from last season’s overtime loss to the Grizzlies, saying the motivation to right that wrong is providing a heightened level of focus. They’re also intent on preventing the impact of the game from overwhelming them.
The mistakes of last year’s loss still haunt the Mustangs. Also, this season’s game is being played in a new year with new players. Both are true.
Even if there wasn’t the history, perhaps an even more relevant truth would still endure.
“We’ve especially been focused,” junior tackle Weston Walker said, “because we know this is probably one of the biggest games we’ll play this year.”