Ryan Chartrand

Every time Cal Poly football players enter Alex G. Spanos Stadium, they know the bar – or rather, a recurring sort of banner – is set high.

The trio of commemorative banners honoring Jordan Beck, Chris Gocong and Kyle Shotwell remind of a golden age of Cal Poly defense, when those three won the Buck Buchanan Award – given to the best defender in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) – from 2004 to 2006.

“It’s a good point for us to reach for – the Chris Gocongs, Jordan Becks, Kyle Shotwells and Courtney Browns,” Mustangs senior defensive end Sean Lawyer said of an NFL-bound foursome that in 2004 had a hand in the FCS’ No. 1 rushing defense. “We want to make sure we’re living up to their standards, and I’m sure they keep an eye on us and want us to do well.”

The Mustangs followed suit during a 52-18 win Saturday at Northwestern State. They don’t want their predecessors’ legacy to become too much of a distant memory.

Two years after leading the FCS with 62 sacks, and one removed from finishing sixth in total defense, the Mustangs finished 63rd in the latter category last season, when they finished 7-4 and missed the playoffs.

Although their defensive standing has improved slightly this season to 56th through three games (yielding an average of 348.7 yards), they shut out Northwestern State in the final 24-plus minutes and held the Demons to 13-of-30 passing overall.

The unit collected six sacks, bringing its three-game total to 14 – tied with Dayton for No. 1 in the FCS.

“That’s what Cal Poly is,” Lawyer emphasized. “When I was younger, we led the nation in sacks, and we’re trying to get back to that.”

Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson was late to Monday’s weekly athletics news conference in Mott Gym, he said, because he and assistants were at their offices near Crandall Gym “agonizing over some issues” like forcing turnovers (which the defense hasn’t done since week one) and giving up too many rushing yards due to missed tackles.

“That defensive front needs to be better than pretty good,” Ellerson said. “Quite honestly, they’re pretty good, but we’ve got to be a lot better than we are right now.”

Strides seem to have been taken thanks in part to the effort of a quicker, more explosive secondary featuring new faces like cornerbacks Asa Jackson (a true freshman) and Eric Gardley (a sophomore converted from receiver), and free safety Greg Francis (a redshirt freshman).

“A lot of (the six sacks Saturday) were just coverage sacks,” Lawyer explained. “The quarterback had nothing to do and we just swarmed over him. We just have to stick with our packages every single week because they’re pretty bulletproof if you run them correctly.”

Coverage sacks or not, the front’s resurgence has been aided by the return of nose tackle James Chen, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener of 2007, his freshman season.

Chen’s unselfishness in freeing up those around him exemplifies the line’s mindset, according to sophomore end Gavin Cooper, whose seven tackles and two sacks Saturday earned him Great West Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors – which Lawyer received two weeks prior.

“That’s the great thing about our d-line,” Cooper said. “(Chen) doesn’t care if he gets a sack as long as he can help someone else get one. He draws double teams non-stop and just loves what he does.”

Unselfishness aside, a little friendly rivalry hasn’t seemed to hurt.

Defensive coordinator Payam Saadat has “challenged (the Mustangs) to get to the QB and pepper him up so the DBs can have a safety net,” Cooper said.

“We challenge each other every game to see who can get the most sacks, and that fires us up,” he added.

The Mustangs (2-1), ranked ninth in both the FCS Sports Network media and coaches polls, will have to wait a bit for their next competition.

Cal Poly, still in the midst of an unusual stretch of a schedule complicated when McNeese State canceled the teams’ week-three meeting due to Hurricane Ike, has begun its second of three bye weeks and is preparing to host South Dakota at 6:05 p.m. Oct. 4.

“I think it’s a positive,” Cooper said. “It’s the first week of school, so we get to focus on that aspect, and hone down on that, without too much hullabaloo. It’ll be a good opportunity to be able to get a step ahead physically, with some rest and extra conditioning time in the weight room.”

A break from game day probably won’t be seen as a hindrance by a group whose camaraderie has been largely built-in since several of its key components – including Lawyer and fellow starters Ryan Shotwell (also at end) and linebackers Carlton Gillespie and Tommy Pace – were all part of the same recruiting class in 2005.

“It’s a really close-knit group of players,” Lawyer explained. “We’re all good friends off the field and that allows us to understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses and who’s around you, and know the man next to you can get it done.”

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