When the Cal Poly football defense got together to prepare for the fall season, change was taking place. New coaches were introduced, a new defensive scheme was put into action and a new video scoreboard was installed. Along with this change, success has come for the Mustang defense in a period when the offense has been struggling to find their footing. Thanks in part to their new defensive coordinator, a more traditional lineup at the line of scrimmage, team chemistry and a ‘school-first’ mentality, the Mustang defense is trying to reclaim its defensive prowess of years past.
While some have attributed the triumphs of the defense to strong leadership and more experience, head coach Tim Walsh believes the success is a combination of factors.
“I really believe in how (defensive coordinator Greg Lupfer) coaches and his teaching abilities. On the other hand, you’re only as good as the players that play for you,” Walsh said. “The team chemistry here is outstanding. What we do and who does it and how hard they practice and play on Saturday allow us to be as successful as we have been.”
Many of the defensive players attribute their chemistry to Lupfer and the winning attitude he instilled early on.
“Right from the get-go it was a family aspect of accomplishing something,” defensive end Ryan Shotwell said. “Coach
Lupfer has kind of instilled an attitude to be the best we can be, and coach Lupfer wants us to be the best in the country. No matter who we’re playing, I think I have a chance to win because I go to Cal Poly. It’s all about attitude.”
Ryan Shotwell and linebacker Carlton Gillespie also point to Lupfer’s mandatory linebacker meetings and the defense barbecue he held at Pismo Beach days before the team left for football camp in August. At the barbecue, the defensive unit introduced themselves to each other and discussed goals for the upcoming season.
“I’d never been to a barbecue like that before,” Gillespie said. “It showed he’s committed to us.”
In addition to pushing the defense, Lupfer has changed the defensive scheme to a more traditional style. Under former head coach Rich Ellerson, the Mustang defense showcased a complicated 3-4 Double Eagle Flex alignment. Under Lupfer, the team has switched to a more traditional 4-3 formation with two tackles and two defensive ends at the line of scrimmage and three linebackers behind.
But as anyone who has ever played sports undoubtedly knows, a team is nothing if the players don’t trust and respect each other, a sentiment felt wholeheartedly by defensive assistant coach Kyle Shotwell.
“I think what we have on the defensive side now is that we’ve got a group of guys who have bought into Lupfer,” he said. “On defense, it’s a lot about sacrifice and doing your role so we can be successful as a whole.”
It’s easy to see what the coaches are talking about when discussing friendship, family and brotherhood. It’s seen in the smirks at a private joke, the friendly ordering around of a redshirtted freshman to take a DVD to a senior’s car and in the chuckles at the mention of linebacker brothers Marty and Kyle Mohamed and their matching orange Crocs. It’s seen in the head-tossed-back laughter at the mention of Michael ‘Bandini’ Santini who always wears a bandana, in the topic of Quentin Greenlaw’s do-rag and in the nicknames given to coach Shotwell’s younger brothers Ryan and Troy: Little Shotty and Littler Shotty.
Coach Lupfer said the strong team bond was apparent from the first meeting.
“I’ve never seen a group of guys that get along as they do,” he said. “Nothing makes a difference (with these guys). It’s a pretty special deal, and I”m lucky to be a part of it.”
More than simply feeling a connection with their teammates, coach Shotwell said the players feel comfortable with the coaches on and off the field.
“The players know we have their backs,” he said. “(We) keep a close watch on them to be as successful as they can in their lives and in the SLO community, and the guys are receptive to that and that makes it fun.”
All players participate in Academic Game Plan (AGP) during breakfast. Here, position coaches look over their players’ notebooks, notes, quizzes, tests and papers to make sure all players are in top form academically. Lupfer said a major reason for this is the players are students before athletes. When asked what happens if a player slacks off academically, coach Lupfer’s immediate response is a sly smile, a slight chuckle and to say that’s why the coaches look at the player’s work a week early.
“They can’t play football forever,” he said, “but their degree lasts forever.”
It seems that most of the Cal Poly football team understands this and works hard to dispel the stereotypical jock image.
“I participate in class probably more than people like,” Gillespie said, “(and) I’m in my teachers’ office hours probably more than my teachers are in their office hours. My education is important to me, and I’m probably going to continue it after I graduate here.”
Likewise, Ryan Shotwell said he is usually one of the first to speak up and raise his hand in class.
“I never miss class, I always participate. I like to be involved in class,” he said. “I’m not one of those players that likes to sit in the back of class and wait for it to end, I want to get the most out of it. I’m blessed to be here.”
While the coaches are respected by the team for pushing the players academically, there’s still a sense of comradarie and playfulness between them. The time Saadat fainted from screaming too hard is a strong memory in Ryan Shotwell’s mind, he said, but both Gillespie and Kyle Mohamed agree that the coaches this season aren’t without their quirks either. Gillespie and Marty Mohamed mention when coach Lupfer who almost broke his hand smacking it on a table, not from anger, but from excitement and energy.
“We think (Lupfer’s) like a frustrated cowboy,” Gillespie said. “Because he’ll be yelling and say ‘ya’ll’ a lot.”
Kyle Mohamed also enjoys coach Shotwell’s personal flair when delivering signals. One in particular is the “cowboy call,” in which coach Shotwell has been known to tip his hat forward, bend at the hips and position his right foot behind his left.
“When coach Shotwell gives the signals, he always gives them a little spice,” Mohamed said.
For all the joking and jabbing the defensive players and coaches do to each other, everyone is quick to point out that the success of the defense isn’t just a result of the relationship between the defensive unit, but between the entire team as a whole. What frustrates coach Shotwell is that the common fan can’t see just how effective the offense actually is during games. While a lot of the talk concerning the so-so playing of the offense is a result of the game against South Dakota, coaches Shotwell and Lupfer want fans to see that Cal Poly’s offense was in possession of the ball more than South Dakota’s and was effective in moving the ball down the field.
“I think that people are slow to catch onto success and quick to catch onto failure,” coach Shotwell said. “(In the) game of football, it’s more about controlling the field, and the offense did that against South Dakota.”
Cal Poly leads the Great West conference in scoring defense and interceptions, but stumbled in Saturday’s loss to Montana, allowing 35 points. Contrary to past games, the offense got things rolling in the first half.
Montana had 453 yards of total offense compared to Cal Poly’s 317.
Conference leader in tackles, Marty Mohamed (36), added 10 take downs, and defensive back Scottie Cordier brought his conference-leading interceptions total to four with a pick. Cal Poly built 10-0 and 17-7 leads in the first half by capitalizing on four turnovers before Montana gained momentum with a score in the final minute, closing the gap 17-14.
Quarterback Tony Smith capped an 83-yard, 10-play drive with a one-yard sneak with time waning in the first quarter and added a a field goal early in the second. But the Grizzlies recovered quickly from the 10-0 deficit as Justin Roper hooked up with Mariani on an 84-yard touchdown pass. Late in the second, Cal Poly took advantage of South
Dakota’s special teams’ miscue after a Mariana fumble that was capped off by a Jordan Yocum rushing touchdown. He had 119 yards on 24 carries.
It took Montana just over three quarters to capture its first lead of the game, 21-17. Five minutes later, the Grizzlies added another when quarterback Andrew Selle hit Mariani with a a 68-yard touchdown pass. Cal Poly responded with its own long touchdown pass, but Montana struck right back with 3:24 left, solidifying its 35-23 victoty.
Quarterback Tony Smith was hurt earl with a thigh bruise, but limped through most of the game. With two lineman out for the season, running back Jon Hall out for at least another week and wide receiver Dominique Johnson out indefinitely Smith was a tough loss to swallow.
The Mustangs fall to 2-3 in conference while Montana improves its undefeated record to 5-0. But, it’s the close-knit family atmosphere that can transform a tough loss to something to build on.
“Everybody’s busting their ass, everyone has the same mindset to do so well,” Kyle Mohamed said. “The defense has their little bond and the offense has their little bond, but as a team, we’re striving for the same goal.”