Motivated to win the state of California bragging rights and break its three-game losing streak, the Cal Poly football team returns to Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday night hoping to begin closing out the season on a high note.
The Mustangs host Sacramento State at 6:05 p.m. in the second-to-last home game of the year, pitting two teams with matching 2-6 records against each other. Both programs are 1-4 in the Big Sky Conference, and beating a California FCS school could go a long way for two frustrated rosters.
Cal Poly travels to UC Davis next week to play an Aggies team that put an end to the Mustangs’ 2014 playoff chances, before closing out the season against North Dakota at home Nov. 21.
“It would be awesome to win California,” senior right tackle Weston Walker said. “We’ve done it a couple years. It’s great for recruiting especially, but also I’ve played against these guys for four years and know half the guys.”
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One week removed from their 54-37 loss at No. 24 Southern Utah, the Mustangs welcome a Hornets team that has played three starting quarterbacks and ranks near the bottom in several Big Sky statistical categories.
Sacramento State, which snapped a six-game losing streak by defeating Idaho State two weeks ago, benefited from having an extra week to prepare for its trip to Cal Poly. When the two teams met last season, the Mustangs overcame an early 10-point deficit with a 42-3 run and never looked back.
Second-year head coach Jody Sears said having a couple extra practices during the bye week is good in theory, but Cal Poly’s triple-option offense “is extremely difficult to simulate.”
“The win-loss thing has nothing to do with the state of their football program,” Sears added. “They’re leading the country in rushing offense. That’s gonna keep a guy up at night.”
Sacramento State’s rushing defense has been one of the main bright spots in an otherwise trying season in the state capital. The Hornets rank second in the Big Sky by allowing 141.5 yards rushing per game, trailing only conference-leading North Dakota at 94.6.
Senior linebacker Darnell Sankey anchors a Hornets’ defense that allows 31 points per game, and he’s been among the country’s most consistent tacklers this fall. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Sankey leads the Big Sky and ranks No. 2 in the nation with 112 total tackles, averaging 14 stops per game.
During Sacramento State’s 32-14 loss to Weber State on Sept. 19, Sankey broke the school record for tackles in a single game with 27. He was three tackles short of equaling the FCS single-game record, set by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Josh Cain back in 2001.
“Defensively they’re playing pretty well,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “Offensively they’ve had their struggles, but I think the change at quarterback has been another thing that’s rejuvenated them, and it’s given them an opportunity to play a young guy.”
True freshman Nate Ketteringham has started the past two games at quarterback for the Hornets and led the team to its first Big Sky victory over Idaho State two weeks ago. The San Diego native completed 76.9 percent of his passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns against the reeling Bengals.
Ketteringham will face an improved Mustang defense Saturday night — a group that could welcome back senior linebacker Tu’uta Inoke from injury. Cal Poly’s leading tackler did not travel to Southern Utah last week but was back in uniform and practicing with the team earlier this week.
In his absence, the Mustangs returned to their traditional 4-3 front against the Thunderbirds, leaving fellow senior Burton De Koning to anchor the middle. He responded by making a career-high 17 tackles in a game that was marred by Cal Poly turnovers.
Miscues didn’t stop the Mustangs from rushing for more than 500 yards, including 100-yard efforts from Chris Brown, Kyle Lewis, DJ Peluso and Jared Mohamed. Starting running back Kori Garcia played through an early ankle injury to chip in 37 yards in another gritty performance.
“He said, ‘I don’t think I can cut and run, but I can block,’ ” Walsh said. “So he only had eight or nine carries, but that’s the unselfishness of who he is within the offense. ‘I’ll just do what you guys need me to do,’ and he did it extremely well.”
Cal Poly vs. Sacramento State
What: Big Sky Conference football, Week 6
When: 6:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium
Radio: ESPN 1280 AM