With seven weeks of the season in the rear view mirror, the Cal Poly football team is undefeated against Division I-AA competition and coming off its biggest win of the season.
But in each of their last two Great West Football Conference games, the Mustangs (5-1, 2-0) have had to rally in the second half to win. Cal Poly has been outscored 17-6 in first halves of its last two games, home wins over Southern Utah and rival UC Davis.
That’s something the Mustangs hope to change Saturday in their Homecoming game against South Dakota State.
“It’s nice to know that we have the people on our team that are going to fight the entire game, not give up and play hard enough to win regardless of the circumstances,” sophomore wide receiver Ramses Barden said Thursday after practice. “But it’s definitely a goal this week to get on them from the beginning and not give them the opportunity to get the lead. We don’t want to have to make a fourth-quarter comeback.”
The 6-foot, 6-inch Barden has been instrumental in both comebacks. He caught the go-ahead, 19-yard touchdown in an 18-14 win over Southern Utah on Sept. 30 and three balls for 71 yards in a 23-17 win over UC Davis on Oct. 7. Barden leads Cal Poly, which is ranked No. 4 in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA poll, with 29 receptions for 526 yards and four scores.
While he said he does not mind how the Mustangs win, senior middle linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Kyle Shotwell said he would rather play with the lead than coming from behind.
“It’s always more fun to play with a lead,” said Shotwell, whose 63 total tackles are 19 more than any other player in the Great West. “We really pride ourselves on playing every snap and playing in the moment. The biggest thing for us is getting a ‘W.’ If that happens on the first play, great. If it happens on the 100th play, great.”
Head coach Rich Ellerson agreed.
“We talk about preparing ourselves to win in the fourth quarter,” said Ellerson, whose team is 23-7 the past two seasons. “It’s winning the duels at the end.”
In terms of duels Saturday, Ellerson said the premier matchup could be Cal Poly’s offensive line versus South Dakota State’s defensive front.
“Can our offensive front hang in there with their defensive front?” Ellerson said. “That’s been a challenge for us. They’re another tough group up front. That’ll be a matchup that’ll be interesting.”
Although the Mustangs have scored just eight offensive touchdowns since their season-opening 44-0 win over Division II Fort Lewis, positive signs have been abound the past couple games.
Walter Payton Award candidate sophomore tailback James Noble seems close to 100 percent since recovering from a sprained left ankle that kept him sidelined for a 17-7 loss at Division I-A San Jose State on Sept. 23. He has carried 50 times for 251 yards and one touchdown in the last two games.
Also in that span, sophomore quarterback Matt Brennan has completed 12 of 31 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He ran for the game-clinching touchdown against UC Davis.
With the exception of the San Jose State game, in which he was picked off three times, Brennan has completed 39 of 82 passes for 628 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions. He has a 127.1 efficiency rating in those five games.
“It’s maturity, it’s experience, everything’s coming together,” Barden said of Brennan’s development. “He’s getting his touch to find guys on the field.”
Meanwhile, the beat goes on for the Cal Poly defense, which is second among 117 Division I-AA teams in fewest points allowed per game (9.7) to San Diego (9.2).
The Mustangs lead the division in fewest yards from scrimmage allowed per game (202.7) and total passing yards allowed (624). Cal Poly has recorded 21 sacks and forced 14 turnovers.
A huge reason for the dominance on defense has been the successful conversion of former wide receiver Anthony Randolph to cornerback.
Starting on the right side opposite senior left cornerback and NFL prospect Courtney Brown, the 6-4, 220-pound senior Randolph has 15 tackles (11 solo) and a team-high eight pass deflections. In the three years prior as a wideout, he caught 77 passes, including a 34-yard touchdown at Division I-A Troy last season.
“Our coaches are excellent at converting offensive players to defensive players,” Randolph said. “Courtney Brown was a receiver as well. He’s also helped me a lot in my transition. We’ve been working after practice with drills and things.”
Randolph said it has helped playing in a secondary that features Brown, senior free safety Kenny Chicoine and senior strong safety Randy Samuel. Chicoine is tied for the school’s all-time lead in interceptions (17) and Samuel leads the Mustangs this season with three picks.
“I know if I get beat on a post (route) deep, Kenny Chicoine will be there,” Randolph said. “I know on the left side that Courtney will be there. It definitely takes pressure off.”
South Dakota State’s multi-faceted offense features three primary ball carriers and four pass-catchers, a look similar to that the Mustangs faced against Southern Utah.
“On film we’ve seen a lot of that read option stuff out of the shotgun with the running back offset that Southern Utah did,” Shotwell said.
Though its program dates back to 1889, South Dakota State has only been at the Division I-AA level since 2004. The Jackrabbits, however, have a proud tradition.
South Dakota State’s alumni includes Pro Football Hall of Fame center Jim Langer, who was part of the legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins, as well as current Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri and two-time Pro Bowl St. Louis Rams guard Adam Timmerman.
A season-high in attendance is likely Saturday.
With the new west-concourse seating, stadium capacity has been expanded to 8,565. Two of the 14 largest home crowds in the 91-year history of the football program have already been recorded this season.
“We look forward to another packed house,” Shotwell said.