It was the best of halves; it was the worst of halves for Cal Poly football head coach Rich Ellerson and his defensive unit at San Diego State on Saturday.
In the first half, the young defense would tally a safety and allow its Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) opponent just seven points en route to a 16-7 halftime lead.
The second half was a different story, though, as the Aztecs passing attack led by redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley began to pick apart the somewhat inexperienced Mustangs secondary.
“The secondary is a little bit of a mixed bag,” Ellerson said. “We do some things really well in terms of attacking the football and being ball aware.”
Cal Poly became the only Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) school to beat an FBS opponent on the opening weekend of the season after the ball-hawking defense forced five turnovers in a 29-27 victory that included a forced fumble and fumble recovery by redshirt sophomore nose tackle James Chen.
Ellerson was quick to sing the praises of Chen, who also added a sack and was involved in the first-quarter safety.
“We needed to see what James Chen looked like after a year, and that was good news,” Ellerson said. “He’s a good player.”
Chen, who missed all but the first game of last season after a knee injury, knows the defense is still a work in progress.
“Last year, we struggled a little bit,” Chen said following the game of the group that finished 63rd in the FCS in total defense in 2007. “We’re rebuilding. We lost some players, but I feel like we replaced them really well.”
Chen knows that playing defense for Cal Poly comes with lofty expectations, after three consecutive Buck Buchanan Award Winners. But taking a backseat to the offense and coasting under the radar does not bother him.
“Just from years past, we’ve had to feel the pressure of being a defensive-oriented team,” Chen said. “But I’m not going to complain if our offense is considered better.”
While the offense may be shifting all gears early, the consistency of the defense is something that Ellerson would like to work on.
“There are some things we don’t do well, obviously,” Ellerson said. “We’re violating the defense at times.”
The fast pace of the game is something that many of the inexperienced players will have to deal with during the course of the season, but Ellerson is confident that as the year progresses, the defense will live up to its potential.
“It’s obvious we’re adjusting to the speed of the game for some of those guys, like (true freshman cornerback) Asa Jackson,” Ellerson said. “High school football to San Diego State is a big difference. But he made some plays and he’s going to be just fine.”
Jackson, playing in his first collegiate game, recorded a momentum-shifting interception that led to a Cal Poly touchdown midway through the third quarter.
While the defense stumbled a bit in the second half, allowing three touchdowns and 232 yards passing from Lindley, Ellerson hopes the defense can take that experience and use it in moving forward with this weekend’s highly anticipated home opener against Montana, ranked No. 6 in the FCS coaches poll.
“Hopefully, they can take a giant step forward, not just a step forward, but a big step forward in terms of their readiness,” Ellerson said. “Our practice has been better because of the game last week. Now they understand what we’re talking about. ‘I saw it full speed last week and it kicked my ass.’ “