This is the game that has been circled on the calendar. This is the one fans have been waiting for.
The Cal Poly Mustangs (3-1) will square off against the Fresno State Bulldogs (2-1) in Fresno Saturday night for the first time in 25 years — reviving the once great rivalry between the two schools.
“We’re really hungry to get this one,” fullback Jake Romanelli said. “Everyone had this game circled when the schedule came out. There is no doubt about that.”
This weekend will be the 43rd time the former California Collegiate Athletic Association rivals meet, dating back to the first meeting in 1922. In the series between the two, who played regularly from 1945 to 1985, the Bulldogs have tallied 30 wins against the Mustangs, including a five-game winning streak from 1980 to 1985.
“Obviously based on the past history Cal Poly has had with Fresno State, I think it will be great to renew that rivalry,” head coach Tim Walsh said at Monday’s press conference. “We also have to keep in mind that was 25 years ago and their program has changed quite a bit in those 25 years … they are looked, at the national scene, at the highest level of football as one of the top-35 teams in the country.”
That tradition stems from the head coach.
Ever since head coach Pat Hill took over the program in 1997, the Bulldogs have recorded just three losing seasons. Overall, the Bulldogs are 102-67 under Hill and have recorded 16 wins against schools in BCS conferences since 2000. Hill is ranked fourth all-time among Western Athletic Conference head coaches in wins and ranks second in most victories in bowl games.
He hasn’t played Cal Poly since becoming head coach, but as a first-year assistant coach in 1984, he saw the Bulldogs beat the Mustangs 14-0 and then 59-10 the following year.
“It was a big game, the Cal Poly-Fresno State game was a traditional rivalry forever,” Hill said during Monday’s WAC teleconference call. “It’s been a long time coming but I think it’s going to be a heck of a game.”
So far on the season, Fresno State has had to line up against a different kind of offense each week, Hill said. First it was Cincinnati with one style, then Utah State with another and last week it was Jeremiah Masoli and the Ole Miss offense, who gave the Bulldogs their first loss of the season.
This week, the trend continues, as Pat Hill will face the triple-option for the first time since he played Rice six years ago, he said.
“We’re busy getting prepared for a completely different offense,” Hill said. “The first three games have been physically demanding and this will be demanding also … We need to play hard and play at a very high level of execution this week.”
Leading Cal Poly’s offense will be quarterback Andre Broadous, who Walsh said will have a good chance of starting for the Mustangs. Last week, Broadous led the team to its first win on the road since 2008, in his first collegiate start of his career. He rushed for 89 yards, and went 7-10 through the air for 77 yards.
“I think I did pretty good for my first time, but there is still a lot of things that I can improve on,” Broadous said. “Things like footwork, fundamental things, but I think I did pretty good just managing the game. The offensive line made me look good, just on a lot of the runs I had.”
Broadous’ playing time came at former starting quarterback Tony Smith’s expense, who failed to make the trip to McNeese State due to an injury. Smith started every game a year ago and started the first two games of this season before being injured. He will be making the trip this week, Walsh said.
“Probably the ball will be in Andre’s hands to start out with and he needs to do something with it in a positive way,” Walsh said. “The unique thing about Andre is exactly what we have been saying; everyone has strengths and weaknesses, his strengths are with the ball in his hands.”
In front of Broadous will be an offensive line that has been hit with injuries. Art Munoz, who missed most of last season with a broken leg, did everything he could to come back and play this season, but will remain a long shot to play in this weekend’s game after an injury against McNeese State, Walsh said. Along with him are three other lineman who will most likely not play.
“You can be Alabama and you can tell Nick Saban that he is going to play without his four top offensive lineman and you tell me he’s going to feel good about it,” Walsh said. “No. The reality is it did happen and it happened to us … guys are stepping up and doing a great job.”
Fresno State heads into the game with its share of injuries as well. The Bulldogs may likely be without their two top receivers, Devon Wylie and Rashad Evans, senior offensive lineman Andrew Jackson and leading rusher A.J. Ellis, who are either ruled out or day-to-day against Cal Poly.
One player who should be on the field Saturday for the Bulldogs is quarterback Ryan Colburn, who has passed for 786 yards and nine touchdowns through three games this season. In comparison to former Fresno State standout David Carr in 2001, Colburn has a better completion percentage by 13 points and has thrown three more touchdowns than Carr in his first three games.
“Ryan has done an outstanding job for us,” Hill said. “I think he’s functioning and playing at a very high level; he’s played against good competition.”
He will line up against a defense that has maybe been the reason the Mustangs are where they are this season. In all but one game, the Mustangs held their opponents to under 17 points. In every game, the Mustangs have grabbed either a fumble recovery or an interception. On the year, the Mustangs have tallied seven interceptions and returned two for touchdowns.
“I think we have played real well,” cornerback Asa Jackson said. “Just playing hard, that’s the main thing for our defense. We might not be the biggest, but we are going to play hard, we are going play fast and we are going to play physical. I think with the exception of the second half of Texas State, we have done that pretty much the whole year.”
But while the defense is playing well, it may take all facets of the game to pull off an upset against what people are calling a dark horse in the FBS. This win has a potential to be one of the biggest upsets Cal Poly could pull off in years, but it is going to take the team’s A-game to push the Mustangs past the Bulldogs, Romanelli said.
“My expectations are simple,” Romanelli said. “We go out there and play good football, and if we play good football, we can win. I truly think we can beat any team in the country if we play well. We are a good football team, no doubt about it.”