They remember it well. The memory has hung over their heads since it happened nearly a year ago, even literally, after the team’s strength and conditioning coach hung the score above them in the weight room: North Dakota State 51, Cal Poly 14.
As the worst loss in Rich Ellerson’s six-year reign as head coach, the final score was a shocking, unprecedented sight in this era of Cal Poly football.
“It definitely sticks out in our minds,” junior linebacker Fred Hives II said. “We still think about it, and used it as motivation the whole off-season. But we do have to switch our focus to this game.”
When the Mustangs (6-3, 2-1 Great West) host the Bison (9-0, 2-0 Great West) in the rematch at 4:05 p.m. Saturday for Homecoming, they will take the field against one of the fastest-rising programs in all of college football.
“It’s an opportunity for redemption,” said junior wide receiver Ramses Barden of the “embarrassing” loss. “Everyone’s going to need to make the next play their best play of the game.”
They’ll need to, indeed, in order to challenge the team with the longest winning streak in all of Division I, at 13 victories, including two this year against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, making the Bison the first Football Championship Subdivision team to beat two FBS teams in a single campaign since Troy and Connecticut each accomplished the feat in 2001.
In the latter half of the milestone, the Bison, the No. 1 team in the latest FCS coaches poll, garnered national attention by upstaging Big Ten neighbor Minnesota 27-21 Oct. 20. North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl, however, says he remembers just as well the loss his team suffered Oct. 8, 2005 at Cal Poly, 37-6.
“We’ve had more success at the Metrodome than at Cal Poly,” Bohl said. “I have vivid memories of what (the loss to Cal Poly) was like two years ago.”
To Ellerson and his players, though, this year’s edition presents even more daunting challenges.
“They’re a complete package, top to bottom,” Ellerson said.
“They ran it down our throat (last year), and got us on play action,” said Cal Poly’s leading tackler, junior linebacker Mark Restelli. “We can’t let them play so downhill.”
After a 14-0 first-quarter deficit Nov. 11 last year, North Dakota State reeled off 51 unanswered points, controlling the ball for 40 minutes and 17 seconds while holding the Mustangs without a first down for nearly three whole quarters.
“Games like that are hard to put out of your memory,” Barden said.
Over the off-season, though, Cal Poly implemented a triple-option scheme to vary its offense, and acquired junior signal caller Jonathan Dally as a transfer from Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria to operate it. Hand-in-hand, the changes have led to the Mustangs boasting the No. 1 offense in the FCS, and Dally its top passer rating.
“It’s something they haven’t seen every week,” junior running back James Noble said of the new system.
Bohl agreed that the Mustangs’ triple option adds a new dimension to the complexion of the game.
“Any time you have a departure like that, it poses a certain unknown element,” he said.
The Mustangs themselves were dealt an unfamiliar wrinkle in the teams’ last meeting, Restelli said, playing on artificial turf inside the Fargodome.
“They had their tennis shoes on,” Restelli said of a team that now hasn’t ventured west of Mississippi for an away game since Nov. 4, 2006, when it edged UC Davis 28-24. “Last year was the first time on turf (for most of the players on the team). On a lot of third-and-short plays, you couldn’t hear in the dome (on offense), and then when they had the ball, you could hear a pin drop.”
Cal Poly’s home field advantage will be its first since Sept. 29.
In last week’s 28-21 victory over Southern Utah to conclude the Mustangs’ four-game road trip Ellerson jokingly called an “odyssey,” the team shuffled its line due to injuries, moving junior center Stephen Field to right guard, with freshman Jason Cox filling in at the spot he vacated.
The re-arranged offense lost two fumbles in the narrow victory, including one on a blown pitch.
“If we turn it over, we don’t have a chance,” Ellerson said of such “inexcusable” miscues. “But if you go out afraid to turn it over, though, you’re not playing.”
North Dakota State’s 30th-ranked defense is led by senior middle linebacker Joe Mays, who has a team-high 69 tackles on the year, followed closely by junior weak-side linebacker Ramon Humber, who had 13 tackles in the team’s 54-28 victory over Illinois State last week.
Junior defensive end Joe Lardinois, meanwhile, is its best pass rusher, with a team-high seven sacks.
While the Bison rushing attack is the catalyst for its offense, efficient senior quarterback Steve Walker has completed 71.6 percent of his passes along the way to amassing the third-best passer rating in the FCS.
His favorite target is junior wide receiver Kole Heckendorf, who has a team-high 40 catches for 600 yards and five scores.
Heading into last week’s game in Cedar City, Utah, Ellerson stressed his team’s 67th-ranked defense had to do a better job forcing turnovers.
Doing just that was instrumental to the team’s win, as sophomore nose tackle Justin Reece returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown, and sophomore strong safety David Fullerton wrestled an interception from a Thunderbirds receiver’s arms.
Slowing down the Bison, though, figures to be the most demanding endeavor they’ve undertaken all year.
“Guys who were there (last year) need to remember how good they were,” said Ellerson, who added that despite appearances, North Dakota State wasn’t trying to run up the score, perhaps as retaliation for the Mustangs’ 31-point win a year earlier. “They just kicked our butt.”
Of course, if Cal Poly players are to be believed, remembering last year hasn’t been a problem at all.
“We’ve been looking forward to playing them for a while,” Fullerton said. “This game is all we can ask for.”