In 1972 No. 3 Cal Poly locked horns with No. 6 North Dakota for the NCAA West College Football Championship in the 12th annual Camellia Bowl.
In front of the largest crowd of all regional bowls that year, Cal Poly became the victim of an underdog upset and was etched into North Dakota’s record books as their 10th win that season.
It was one of the few times in the school’s history that Cal Poly made it to a championship game; the Mustangs ended the season with no reward.
This Saturday at the Alerus Center, No. 16 Cal Poly (4-3, 1-0 Great West) squares off against Great West foe North Dakota (3-4, 1-1) in the hunt for FCS supremacy.
With four games to go in the season, the Mustangs are set on making a run at the playoffs.
Since the FCS championship was installed in 1978, no team with 4 losses has held the championship trophy; unless the Mustangs can change history, they will need to run the table into the postseason.
Fullback Jake Romanelli said the team is treating every game as a playoff game.
“We can still win the Great West championship, and go all the way into the playoffs with a full head of steam,” he said.
Last year, Cal Poly held arguably one of the most prolific offenses in school history. Averaging nearly 45 points a game and 480 yards of total offense, Cal Poly was crowned Great West champion and placed in a matchup against Weber state in the first round of the postseason. Turning the ball over only six times all year, they turned the ball over five times against Weber State and fell short 49-35 in first round.
Another season filled with expectation turned to one with no reward.
Cal Poly has yet to be named Football Championship Subdivision champion, but this year’s team can remain in the hunt if head coach Tim Walsh and the Mustangs can overcome the injuries that have plagued them all season to fend past the Fighting Sioux this weekend.
With multiple players hurt on the offensive line, including several running backs, Cal Poly is out of sync.
“We don’t have continuity in who plays and who practices,” Walsh said.
While the injuries have hurt the Mustangs, Cal Poly’s depth has allowed them to remain competitive despite a schedule that included two games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Behind the behemoths in the trenches, including true freshman tackle Giovanni Sani, the Mustangs continue to bounce around the top of the nation in rushing statistical categories.
The Mustangs boast the 10th ranked rushing offense in the FCS (206.86 y/gm) and also rank 10th in the FCS in time of possession (32.50 min/gm). Cal Poly’s offensive line has allowed .71 sacks per game and is tied for 4th in the FCS.
Over the past two weeks, the Mustangs have proved that they hold a fourth option in their triple option rushing attack—sophomore fullback Jake Romanelli.
Romanelli stumbled his way into some action after starting fullback Jordan Yocum was injured. He tallied his first career 100 yard game and touchdown against Southern Utah and rumbled for 96 yards against Dixie State.
“When your name is called upon, you have to be ready to step up,” Romanelli said.
The sophomore is just one of six Mustangs who have accumulated over 100 yards on the ground this season.
“You have to assignment sharp and you have to be fast with this type of (offense),” North Dakota head coach Chris Mussman said during an interview on fightingsioux.com.
His defensive scheme will be the same scheme that Cal Poly struggled against this past weekend—the 3-4.
In the Mustangs’ first time playing the 3-4 this season against Dixie State, they were only able to muster 178 yards rushing, their worst total all year.
“It’s good to have a week of practice and have some live situations (against Dixie State), but (this week) we need to improve on some things,” quarterback Tony Smith said.
This season North Dakota has allowed 222 points on defense, exactly 70 points more than Cal Poly, through seven games (31 PPG average).
Junior strong safety Joel Schwenzfeier leads North Dakota in tackles, tackles for loss and interceptions. Cornerback Dominique Hawkins, who is also high up on the tackle list, tallied a career high 12 tackles last week against Southern Utah.
Offensively, North Dakota holds a star in wide receiver Ismael Bamba. The sophomore set a new career high against South Dakota with 141 yards receiving on six catches. That was the 41st-best receiving game ever by a North Dakota player. He also held a three-game streak of over 100 yards receiving this season.
“(Bamba is) a wide-receiver that could probably play anywhere in the country,” Tim Walsh said.
Feeding him the ball is quarterback Jake Landry has thrown for 1281 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
Both will line up against a Mustang defense that salivates for turnovers.
The Mustang defense is ranked fifth in the FCS in turnover margin (+1.71 per game) and is tied for fourth in the FCS in turnovers gained and fifth in FCS in interceptions.
“With all our goals on the table going into the final stretch of the season (this is) a huge game this week against North Dakota,” quarterback Tony Smith said.
Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. PST Saturday.