Brian De Los Santos
The Mustangs were in the air traveling back from Arizona while the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoff selection show aired on national television. Awaiting an at-large bid to the postseason, the entire team — give or take — read the same message when they finally were able to turn on their phones and check results.
“We’re going to Texas,” defensive lineman Sullivan Grosz said. “This is exactly what we wanted to do.”
The Cal Poly football team clinched its first postseason berth since 2008 on Sunday, garnering an at-large bid and a first-round bye that will pit the Mustangs against Sam Houston State in two weekends.
“I can’t feel better than I do for these guys,” fourth-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “It has been kind of a process to get to where we are and get to where we feel like we can compete at the national level.”
The Mustangs are now doing so, being one of 20 teams in the nation to make the FCS playoffs. It’s new territory for the Mustangs under Walsh. Cal Poly’s last playoff berth came four seasons ago under former head coach Rich Ellerson. That year, the Mustangs went 8-2 during the regular season but then fell 49-35 in a first-round loss to Weber State.
“The most important thing for me is always the players,” Walsh said. “When they set goals and they accomplish them, it’s a great feeling to be a coach of that football team. Beating UC Davis, co-champions of the Big Sky in our very first year and an opportunity to play for a national championship, you couldn’t write a better script of goals that were accomplished by a group.”
They have come close before. In 2010, the Mustangs were likely a win away from a playoff berth before giving up a 21-3 halftime lead to fall to UC Davis 22-21. A year later, Cal Poly looked like it would be poised for the Great West Conference championship, but then fell to UC Davis 24-17.
But this year, the Mustangs finally got over the hump and are lined up to play a Sam Houston State team that lost to North Dakota State 17-6 in last year’s national championship game.
“I watched the national championship game last year and they’re extremely athletic and pretty physical on the defensive side of the ball. So it’s a huge challenge for us,” Walsh said. “I know they are extremely explosive on offense. They can score a lot of points in a hurry.”
That they can. The Bearkats sit tied for sixth in the nation in total offense (480.45 yards per game) and are No. 1 in the nation in scoring offense (44.55 points per game). Their leading rusher, Tim Flanders, has rushed for 1,151 yards and 17 touchdowns this season and their quarterback, Brian Bell, has thrown for 2,033 and 19 touchdowns.
The Mustangs are going to have to defend those players with a wounded core of players, as of now. In Saturday’s 42-34 win over Northern Arizona, both safety Alex Hubbard and offensive lineman Karl Winkelman left the game with knee injuries. Matthew Reza also saw limited playing time in the secondary and Dave Douglas has been recovering from an injury as well.
The bye week, however, will give the Mustangs a chance to get everyone healthy, Walsh said.
“We probably had three or four guys that went down, so hopefully we can get guys healthy because we’re going to need them,” Walsh said. “They’re probably one of the best teams in the country.”
Cal Poly hasn’t had a bye week since the second week of the season, so the players are looking forward to the extra time to prepare for their first playoff game under Walsh, Grosz said.
“It’s nice we got a week just to jump start on things,” Grosz said. “It gives us the opportunity to rest our bodies; everyone on our team all the guys have some kind of injury, some kind of problem. It’s nice to have this week off, let them rest.”
Regardless of the extra time, the game won’t be easy, and the players know it. Sam Houston State matches up with Cal Poly’s rushing attack well, as the Bearkats have the third-best rushing offense in the nation, holding opponents to 76.4 yards per game.
But running back Deonte Williams said the team is ready for it.
“We expect that,” Williams said, “I don’t want it to be easy for us. I want us to be able to work for this.”