The Cal Poly football team was a few plays away from dropping its first game of the season last week against Weber State. This week, the Mustangs are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Rolling off their first 5-0 start in eight years, the Mustangs are looking to continue their success this week, as the team will begin a two-game homestand this weekend against Nothern Colorado in Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
That start is beginning to gain national attention. Cal Poly made the biggest improvement of any school in the polls this week, jumping five spots in both coaches and media polls. Having been nationally ranked No. 14 by FCS coaches and No. 15 in the Sports Network media poll this week, the Mustangs have also been placed in the top 20 by many other organizations. College Sports Journal ranks the Mustangs at No. 13, College Sports Madness at No. 18 and Any Given Saturday put Cal Poly in its first top 10 ranking of the 2012 season at No. 9.
But the Mustangs didn’t get there without any setbacks.
Against Weber State, junior defensive back Alex Hubbard made a high hit on a defenseless player with 14 minutes remaining in the first quarter. Consequently, Hubbard was one of four football players from Big Sky Conference to be issued a suspension by Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton. Hubbard will miss the game against Northern Colorado, but he will return to play next week against Portland State.
“The culture of football is changing,” head coach Tim Walsh said regarding the suspension. “We have to understand it. We’re going to move forward and play as hard as we can.”
Last week, fullback Akaninyene Umoh sat out with a pulled hamstring and running back Deonte Williams also saw limited playing time due to an injury. That allowed linebacker Brandon Howe to run the ball as a fullback, where he scored two touchdowns and rushed for 80 yards. He had just nine carries, giving his teammates an opportunity to step up.
And they did just that.
Cal Poly rallied from 6-0, 13-7 and 20-14 deficits to keep its perfect record. The Mustangs haven’t won their first five games since 2004, when the squad went 7-0, which led to a 9-2 season.
The Mustangs will have to continue their streak, however, without their junior college standout at safety.
“There are guys on our team that can play. A lot of guys,” Walsh said. “Matt Reza will play about 50 percent of every game, and now he’s probably gong to play 75 percent, so things go up, the stock goes up. Jordan Williams is going to have to play. And I think that those are good things. Players have opportunities to prove how good they are.”
Other players have already proved so. College Football Performance Awards honored Cal Poly junior placekicker Bobby Zalud and sophomore running back Kristaan Ivory as last week’s performers of the week. Zalud, perfect on his six PAT kicks, connected on his only field goal of the game, a 44-yard kick.
“We have a tremendous amount of confidence in (Bobby),” Walsh said. “When you miss, sometimes that confidence gets shaken, both in the person and in the guy that’s going to allow you to kick. But he had a focused week of practice and was really on a mission to show everybody and himself that those three misses were not Bobby Zalud. He’s doing a pretty good job for us right now, and we need him to keep it up.”
Zalud and the Mustangs will try and do just that when they face off against Northern Colorado this weekend. The Bears, led by captain and senior linebacker Cameron Friend, hope to turn around Northern Colorado’s three game losing streak after its 40-17 loss last week to Montana .
But junior defensive lineman Barrett Wangara knows Saturday’s game needs to be different than last week’s.
“The win on Friday was bittersweet,” Wangara said. “I’ll take the win for sure, but there are definitely improvements we need to make. We need to come out to the game with a little more energy. I think (the Weber State game) was probably the flattest game we came out with. It’s probably the first time we’ve ever been in that type of situation. Thankfully, our offense kept us in the game, so our defense really stepped up in the second half and put them away.”
Cal Poly will also host its Parent’s and Family weekend. And while the football team is focusing on winning, there’s extra motivation with all the family members who will occupy the stands on Saturday night.
“It’s like senior night back in high school,” Wangara said. “There’s that extra emphasis when the parents come out. You’ve really got to play hard for them. I know that parents have made so many sacrifices for their kids to play college ball, so you really want to put forth that effort to make them proud of you.”
Walsh and the football team now look to Saturday to continue their winning streak.
“I told (the team) we’re creating an atmosphere,” Walsh said. “The creation has begun, but it’s not finished.”
Jefferson P. Nolan contributed to this article.