Lauren Rabaino

Like bandits in the night, Cal Poly football players reveled in their heist. Slowly but surely, they earned the right to celebrate on the evening of Oct. 28, 2006 by stealing from an unsuspecting San Diego State attention, respect and most importantly, a 16-14 win.

Although the teams had met all but one season from 1946 to 1967, their first reunion in 39 years ended in a getaway that shocked most of the 20,974 at Qualcomm Stadium, as trespassing Cal Poly became the seventh Football Championship Subdivision (then Division I-AA) team that year to topple a Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) bigger brother.

The memory will be vivid for both teams as they open their seasons against each other at the same site at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

“That’s a game that we’ll always remember,” Aztecs senior linebacker Russell Allen said. “It’s definitely something that we’ll remember when we’re out there on Saturday.”

Cal Poly knows full well.

“They hate our guts,” Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson said. “They’re going to try to right a wrong, and we’ve got to see if we can return to the scene of the crime and play our best football.”

Fourteen current Mustangs were at that scene, including eight starters (five on offense and three on defense), compared to 13 Aztecs, only three of whom started (two offensively and one defensively).

“We’ve got a good number of people who were there and felt what it was like to play in an NFL stadium,” said Cal Poly senior wide receiver Tre’dale Tolver, the brother of J.R. Tolver, who as an Aztec led the FBS in receiving yards per game in 2002. “It’ll help calm the demeanor in the locker room and help the young guys know what to expect.”

While Ellerson pointed out the “personnel picture has changed dramatically for both,” there figure to be strategic carryovers.

“Their offense is the same offense, their defense is a similar defense,” Ellerson said.

One of the key personnel differences Ellerson alluded to is quarterback. Although each team’s is different from 2006, Cal Poly will start senior Jonathan Dally, who last season finished second in the FCS in passing efficiency while adding 763 rushing yards. He’ll be facing the reboot of a defense that finished 115th of 119 FBS squads in yardage allowed a season ago.

San Diego State, meanwhile, will be looking for redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley to fill the shoes of Kevin O’Connell, chosen by the New England Patriots in the third round of April’s NFL Draft.

Lindley, a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder from El Capitan High School, connected on 11 of his 13 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown during the Aztecs’ intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 16.

“He’s done a great job of reading defenses so far,” Aztecs head coach Chuck Long said. “We’d like to run the football to take some pressure off of him.”

Despite Lindley’s inexperience, Ellerson said he doesn’t plan to attempt to fluster him by doing anything out of the ordinary.

“I think especially early in the season, you’re not exactly sure who or what (Lindley) is,” he said. “Right now we have no idea.”

For that matter, Ellerson’s been trying to get a better idea of what his secondary will look like.

Only junior strong safety David Fullerton appears entrenched, with redshirt freshman Greg Francis and sophomore Scottie Cordier battling for free-safety duties, and true freshman Asa Jackson and sophomore, converted wide receiver Eric Gardley each making dark-horse bids at cornerback. The “very competitive” unit won’t be fully sorted out until game action, Ellerson said.

That will likely be a trial by fire against San Diego State, looking to tune up for a Sept. 6 visit to Notre Dame.

“We’ve conditioned our guys to say, ‘Hey, we play Cal Poly first,’ ” Long said.

The Aztecs have plenty of reason to approach their opener like a necessary dinner before dessert. In the 2006 debacle, they blew a 14-3 lead, squandered a 306-284 yardage advantage and missed a potentially game-winning, 48-yard field goal attempt with 32 seconds remaining.

“They felt embarrassed,” Ellerson said. “They were heartbroken over that.”

Even with 10 offensive starters returning from last year’s team that finished second in the FCS in total offense, trailing only national champion Appalachian State, Ellerson stressed that the Mustangs can’t afford to take too much comfort in the 2006 win.

“I asked our guys the other day, ‘How many of you had an opportunity to go to San Diego State?’ ” Ellerson said. “And there was nobody raising their hands. This is an uphill fight.”

His players know full well the element of surprise is gone.

“We’re not sneaking up on anybody,” Tolver said. “They know what we can do and they haven’t forgotten. We’ve got to go out there like we’ve never played them before.”

Ellerson said the magnitude of the opportunity won’t be taken for granted.

“San Diego State is brand-name,” he said of the program boasting 141 NFL draftees all-time to Cal Poly’s 29. “They have that history and that aura.”

As if the Mustangs, ranked 14th in the FCS coaches preseason poll, didn’t have enough incentive to put a dent in all of that, in weeks two and three they host No. 7 Montana and visit No. 10 McNeese State.

“We’re picked 14th, and that’s nice,” Ellerson said. “But at the same time, those people are also picking us to be 0-3, if you look at our schedule, because they picked everybody ahead of us.”

To prepare for the onslaught of a beginning, Ellerson said, practices were approached with a greater intensity than usual.

“We intentionally were a little more physical in camp than we maybe have been in years past, knowing that we were going to have to start fast,” he explained. “We don’t have time to ease ourselves into this.”

Notes: chose the game as the most likely FCS-over-FBS upset of 2008. . Sport Pundit predicts a 36-34 Aztecs win. . Cal Poly was ranked 121st of 245 teams in the Jeff Sagarin NCAA football preseason ratings released Friday. Cal Poly was the 17th-ranked FCS member, above 16 FBS counterparts. San Diego State was slotted 88th, beneath five FCS squads. . The FCS was 9-68 against the FBS in 2007. Cal Poly is 3-17 against the FBS since 1980. . San Diego State leads the in-state series 13-10 all-time. . Cal Poly athletic director Alison Cone previously told the Mustang Daily that San Diego State will pay Cal Poly about $180,000 for the game. . The first 20,000 in attendance Saturday are promised a free jersey of Marshall Faulk, an Aztec from 1991 to 1993.

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