The final chapter of the 2015 Cal Poly football season will be written Saturday night, and the Mustangs hope there won’t be any unexpected plot twists over the last few pages.
Hosting North Dakota for the first time in five years, Cal Poly has a chance to end a trying season on a three-game winning streak and send the team’s 18 seniors out with their 27th victory.
There’s also the added incentive of ending North Dakota’s outside shot at earning a spot in the 24-team FCS playoffs, something the Mustangs experienced in their home finale in 2014. At 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big Sky Conference, UND would need a seventh victory and a series of other outcomes around the country to be considered for the postseason.
Cal Poly (4-6, 3-4 Big Sky) is well respected in the conference for being a team that’s better than its record indicates. Opposing coaches have said as much throughout the season and head coach Tim Walsh believes the Mustangs can validate that sentiment with a victory.
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“I think proving it is how we play Saturday,” Walsh said. “If we do that, then we can all look around and say we probably should’ve been playing for something a little bit more important over Thanksgiving.
“Even though we’re not, at least it proves the fact that we probably should’ve been there.”
Walsh acknowledged if it weren’t for a season’s worth of fumbles against Southern Utah and Portland State, Cal Poly would likely have beaten the top two teams in the Big Sky. The same can be said for the overtime loss against Eastern Washington, when a series of late miscues cost the Mustangs a victory against the three-time defending conference champions.
The team responded by defeating in-state opponents Sacramento State and UC Davis, two teams Cal Poly competes with for recruits on a yearly basis. A third consecutive win against UND could build some momentum heading into the offseason for a program that returns 87 players next season.
Senior center Stephen Sippel said the victory in Davis last week was a “pretty nice morale builder for the team and a good goal to accomplish before the season was over.”
By Tuesday morning, however, Cal Poly’s attention shifted to a UND team that leads the Big Sky in rushing defense. UND has limited its opponents to less than 95 yards rushing per game and seven touchdowns on the ground all season.
Middle linebacker Will Ratelle anchors the defensive front and has made 99 tackles this season, including 10.5 for lost yardage, with three sacks and one interception. During its 45-14 victory over Northern Colorado last week, UND intercepted three passes and forced four fumbles, recovering two of them.
Walsh said UND not only plays “extremely hard and physical” but second-year head coach Bubba Schweigert has extensive experience coaching against the triple option during his career.
“We really don’t know exactly what we’re going to get,” Walsh said. “ … But they have us definitely concerned because they do have knowledge.”
No opponent this fall has been able to slow Cal Poly’s rushing attack, which averages an FCS-leading 410.7 yards per game and scored 36 times on the ground. Senior quarterback Chris Brown has rushed for 1,021 yards and 11 touchdowns and passed for 635 yards and 11 more scores.
Brown is the only member of the Mustangs’ backfield who will play his final game against UND, ending a career that will rank among the best in program history.
“Chris Brown’s definitely one of the fearless leaders,” senior cornerback Karlton Dennis said. “We’re looking forward to him doing Chris Brown on Saturday, which is making plays, leading us into battle and when things get rough, just putting his head down and keep grinding.”
Sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe has rushed for 777 yards and six touchdowns, though his production has dipped some because of injuries over the past month.
Kori Garcia has contributed 738 yards rushing and five touchdowns, and the gritty junior will likely miss out on consecutive 1,000-yard seasons barring a career-best performance on Saturday.
Conversely, UND relies largely on true freshman John Santiago for most of its offensive production. The speedy 5-foot-9, 170-pound running back leads the Big Sky in rushing yards (1,342) and rushing touchdowns (13) and has proven to be a big-play threat any time he touches the ball.
“A lot of times you talk about the pass game keeping it in front of you,” Walsh said. “We’ve got to keep him in front of us. If we don’t, we better score a lot of points because he is that dangerous.”
Cal Poly Mustangs Football
Who: Cal Poly vs. North Dakota
What: Big Sky Conference regular season finale
When: 6:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium