If there’s one main takeaway from Cal Poly’s trying football season, perhaps it’s that a handful of plays over the course of an 11-game schedule can define an entire year’s worth of work.
When the Mustangs (2-5, 1-3 Big Sky Conference) began fall camp in August, there were expectations of contending for a conference title and pursuing a berth in the 24-team FCS playoffs. An offense that returned nine starters, many of them all-conference performers, has been as good, if not better than expected.
A new-look defense featuring an inexperienced secondary went through some early growing pains and rounded into form in October. That much was clear when Cal Poly held Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp, arguably the best player in the country, to one of the worst statistical performances of his career.
Each week it seems a different Mustang delivers a standout performance: Tu’uta Inoke’s 16-tackle effort against Montana; Joe Protheroe’s 130-yard game at Arizona State; Kori Garcia’s three-touchdown night against Idaho State; Kyle Lewis’ 201 all-purpose yards against Portland State.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to give up,” senior safety Kaulin Blair said. “We’re going to keep fighting, keep playing, we just want to win now. It’s about pride. It’s about going out there, doing the best you can for each other, too.”
There haven’t been many glaring miscues in terms of turnovers and penalties, two categories where Cal Poly ranks in the top four of the conference standings. The timing of the miscues is what’s cost the Mustangs, particularly in the past two weeks against ranked opponents.
Standing on the field following a difficult loss to Portland State last Saturday, head coach Tim Walsh lamented the Mustangs’ season-high four turnovers, a muffed snap and a poorly timed late-hit in the fourth quarter.
“We had a good Eastern Washington team beat, a good Portland State team beat and people would be singing a different tune about who we are,” Walsh said. “But we’ve got to find a way.”
If Cal Poly is going to turn its season around and finish with a winning record, it must start Saturday against No. 24 Southern Utah in Cedar City.
As many opposing coaches have done this year, Thunderbirds head coach Ed Lamb called Cal Poly one of “the best teams in the nation” that has come up on the short end of a rigorous schedule.
“They’re very physical, very tough,” Lamb added. “It’s a tough game to play and it’s a tough game to recover from after. So we have our hands full.”
Beyond Saturday’s matchup, Cal Poly plays three teams in the bottom half of the conference standings to close out the year. They host Sacramento State (2-6), go to UC Davis (1-7) and finish the schedule at home against North Dakota (4-4).