Contemplating the Big Sky Conference title and what chance the Cal Poly football team has left of taking the conference’s automatic berth to the FCS playoffs seem like calculations worthy of NASA.
The Mustangs (6-4) have a chance to finish 6-2 in the Big Sky with a victory in today’s Battle for the Golden Horseshoe against UC Davis (1-8, 0-6 Big Sky). That’s not too shabby considering Cal Poly is within one loss of the conference frontrunners.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, there are four one-loss teams ahead of them in the 13-team Big Sky, and it’s highly unlikely those teams will lose the games necessary to give Cal Poly a chance for the top spot in the final two weeks of the regular season.
So, the Mustangs are solely focused on their final two games, their FCS playoff hopes almost assuredly in the hopes of an NCAA committee sorting out the 24-team playoff bracket even if they sweep this week and next week at nonconference opponent San Diego.
The Aggies were eliminated from playoff contention long ago, but if last week’s 23-21 loss to Northern Arizona, which currently holds all tiebreakers should the Lumberjacks finish tied for the conference crown, is any indication, UC Davis hasn’t given up.
“The guys are very positive and are working hard,” Aggies second-year head coach Ron Gould said. There is “a lot of energy. We understand we’re close. We had a chance to win a game again last week in the fourth quarter against NAU. Our defense played extremely well.”
Cal Poly has won two straight in the annual rivalry, but even though the No. 1 rushing offense in the nation looks to trounce a team that gives up 37.8 points per game and ranks 110th out of 121 FCS teams in scoring defense, the Mustangs have to take UC Davis seriously.
A 77-37 midseason loss to Montana State wasn’t pretty, but the Aggies feature the top red-zone defense in the Big Sky, allowing touchdowns just 75.6 percent of the time.
Performance inside the 20s could be pivotal in this game considering how short-yardage touchdown runs seem to be the specialty of Cal Poly’s option offense.
“We’ve been really banged up,” Gould said, “but our guys have found a way to hold it in. Once they get down there in the red zone, they lock things down.
“Our guys, in terms of just the discipline standpoint, they’ve done a fabulous job, and some of our younger players have just grown up over the course of the season.”
The Mustangs also are reeling from a 30-28 loss at Idaho State where the offense had trouble scoring after averaging more than 40 points per game during a five-game winning streak.
“I think they’ve gotten better on defense all year long,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said of UC Davis. “If you take Montana State out of it, they’re good on defense. They shut Northern Arizona out in the second half. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.
“The message for us is fourth downs and touchdowns. We had four touchdowns the other day, 28 points, but that doesn’t match the 526 yards and 32 first downs we had. If you have that going for you with what we do, we believe we should have 42 points.
“We have to believe in ourselves, and we have to score touchdowns when we have an opportunity to score them.”
Last season’s 34-16 Cal Poly victory can also be somewhat misleading.
UC Davis was driving near midfield early in the fourth quarter looking for the go-ahead score. As the Mustangs were in danger of losing their 20-16 lead, Alex Hubbard intercepted Aggies quarterback Randy Wright. On the next Aggies possession, Cal Poly linebacker Cameron Ontko stripped UC Davis running back Gabe Manzanares for a fumble that was recovered by cornerback Bijon Samoodi.
The Mustangs capitalized with touchdowns on each turnover, and a close game that could have easily gone either way looks like a blowout in retrospect.
The untimely errors have continued to plague UC Davis this season.
Despite dwelling at the bottom of the standings, the Aggies were literally one play away from |knocking off the team most likely to take the conference’s automatic playoff berth.
“We’re still making way too many mistakes,” Gould said, “and when you’re playing great teams week in and week out, you can’t do that. NAU made one more play than we did. “We had our hands on three interceptions in that game last week, and we dropped every one of them. That’s the difference right there.”