The magnitude of Saturday’s regular-season finale against Northern Arizona can’t be overstated for the Cal Poly football team.
It has title implications. It has playoff implications. It has historical implications.
The No. 17 Mustangs (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky) face off against the No. 15 Lumberjacks (8-2, 6-1) in Flagstaff, Ariz. for at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title and a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs.
A Cal Poly win and losses by both Eastern Washington and Montana State will give the Mustangs the outright conference title and the Big Sky’s lone automatic playoff berth. But, Cal Poly will find itself in a three-way tie for first if all three teams come out on top this weekend and because the team doesn’t hold a tiebreaker advantage against either the Eagles or Bobcats, the Mustangs’ playoff fate won’t rest solely in their hands.
All that aside, the Mustangs’ main focus this weekend will be to win against a hot Northern Arizona team.
“That was the goal to win the Big Sky,” fourth-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “Every player strives to have that opportunity where when you get to week 11 you’re playing for something pretty meaningful.”
With or without the automatic postseason berth, a win against the Lumberjacks figures Cal Poly a slot in next weekend’s first round playoff action by virtue of an at-large bid.
Nevertheless, the Mustangs will use Saturday’s game as a measuring stick for a successful 2012 campaign.
“(The players) set three goals for themselves,” Walsh said. “They said they wanted to beat UC Davis and get the Horseshoe back. They did it. They said they wanted to win the Big Sky Conference Championship. They have an opportunity to do that. And they would like the opportunity to play for a national championship. And by winning Saturday, all three of those goals will be theirs and that’s what makes it so exciting.”
That excitement may be dampened a bit by the notion of the task ahead. The Lumberjacks enter this weekend’s matchup off a 35-29 triple-overtime loss to Southern Utah last week that snapped an eight-game win streak dating back to the second game of the season. Their only other previous loss was a 63-6 defeat at Arizona State.
The Lumberjacks boast a strong pass game with quarterback Cary Grosshart, a junior who has thrown for 1,723 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season. Running back Zach Bauman compliments the Northern Arizona offense with his eight touchdowns on 1,138 yards gained on the ground this year.
But the biggest headache the Lumberjacks will provide Cal Poly with comes on the defensive side of the ball, considering they allow a Big Sky-best 21.8 points per game.
“It’s probably overall the best defense that we’ve played against,” Walsh said. “They have nine or 10 transfers that are outstanding football players. … I’ve been really impressed with what they are on defense.”
The Mustangs counter with the conference’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense, averaging more than 334 yards per contest. Senior running back Deonte Williams, No. 7 in rushing in the FCS, has helped the team get there.
He broke a school record with nine 100-yard rushing games in a single season following last weekend’s 125-yard performance against Idaho State. He broke James Noble’s record of eight such games set in 2005.
Cal Poly saw several other offensive records fall in its 70-14 romp of the Bengals. Namely, the Mustangs amassed their highest point total since posting 74 against Simon Fraser in 1969 and gained a season-high 650 yards in total offense in the win.
“Hopefully, it’s something we can build on and gain on that win and beat Northern Arizona,” senior quarterback Andre Broadous said. “I think a lot of guys got some confidence from that game and for a lot of the younger guys that stepped up it will give them confidence for a big game this week.”
In that game, Broadous threw for three touchdowns, which marked the second time he’s achieved that feat this season. He now has 29 career scores through the air, making him No. 5 all-time in Cal Poly history entering his final regular season game Saturday.
Last week, the Mustangs were ignited by senior linebacker Kennith Jackson’s two interceptions in the first three minutes to take a quick 14-0 lead and pull away early. This week, against a more potent Lumberjack offense, Cal Poly will have to stay disciplined to produce the same result, according to Jackson.
“We’re really going to have to execute as a defense,” Jackson said. “We’re going to have to be very focused at the point of attack at the front and make sure the back seven are really tight on routes.”
Cal Poly’s last playoff berth came in 2008, where Weber State provided the Mustangs with a first-round exit in the program’s first-ever postseason home game at the Division I level. Their only previous Division I berth came in 2005, which resulted in a quarterfinal elimination.