There is one thing sophomore tailback James Noble hasn’t done in his already storied career at Cal Poly – play against a Division I-A school.
That will change Saturday when the Mustangs visit San Diego State at Qualcomm Stadium.
“It’s a lot of excitement, but I’m going to try to treat it as another game,” Noble said Thursday after practice. “I know it’s going to be a very intense game. I’ve got all my family coming down from Barstow. They’re excited to see me play. I’m just really looking forward to it to see what I can do.”
As a freshman last year, Noble rushed for school records of 1,578 yards and 16 touchdowns despite missing games at both I-A Troy (coach’s decision) and Great West Football Conference rival UC Davis (ankle injury).
Noble was sidelined with a left ankle sprain Sept. 23 when Cal Poly (5-2, 2-1) fell 17-7 at I-A San Jose State. In three games since then, the 5-foot-6-inch, 180-pound Noble has rushed for 425 yards and three scores on 76 attempts, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
On the season, Noble’s 669 rushing yards are second in the Great West. His 111.5 rushing yards per game are second to North Dakota State’s Kyle Steffes by 1.5 yards.
“You can always count on James to fall forward and get you that extra yard when it looks like you might not be able to get it,” Cal Poly senior middle linebacker Kyle Shotwell said. “He’s an outstanding talent. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
Noble was held out of practice as a precautionary measure Thursday, but Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said he fully expects him to play Saturday.
“He’s going to play,” said Ellerson, who added he doubts Noble will be 100 percent healthy the rest of the season.
Noble said it has been beneficial not being pushed too hard in practice.
“The ankle’s doing fine,” Noble said. “The coaches are doing a very good job of keeping me healthy in practice situations.”
Ellerson said having Noble available provides added confidence in the huddle.
“Some of those blocks that aren’t quite good enough for another guy, you’ve got enough of them for James,” Ellerson said. “It’s not enough of them for an average guy, but for James, they’re enough. Our guys understand that – they play with more confidence, they block better, their expectations are higher.”
If Noble needs to be spelled at some point during the game, 210-pound sophomore Fred Hives II can step right in, Ellerson said.
Despite missing four games with a broken left toe, Hives II has carried 23 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns. He has seen time at both tailback and fullback, sometimes lined up alongside Noble.
“He’s a nice change-of-pace guy,” Ellerson said of Hives II. “A different kind of running back. We can keep running the same two or three plays, but now they start to look like six or seven plays because you have different style runners and they hit (the hole) differently. That’s an advantage.”
Another advantage for Cal Poly could be having a defense that ranks sixth in I-AA in fewest points allowed per game (12.4) and third in fewest yards from scrimmage allowed per game (217.9).
The Mustangs were ranked second and first, however, in those respective categories before they suffered a stunning 29-28 loss to South Dakota State on Oct. 21. The Jackrabbits rallied from a 28-6 deficit to win that game by scoring 23 points in the final 8 minutes.
“We want to get that swagger back that we kind of lost the last little bit of the fourth quarter last week and as a defense, we’re a little bit edgy,” said Shotwell, a Buck Buchanan Award candidate whose 74 total tackles lead the Great West. “We want to get back out there and re-establish ourselves. We’re looking forward to another opportunity because that wasn’t us on Saturday in the fourth.”
Shotwell was a redshirt freshman during Cal Poly’s last win over a I-A school, a 34-13 victory at UTEP in the 2003 season opener. He said the Mustangs have been looking forward to playing the Aztecs since the schedule came out.
“Any time you get to play a Division I-A school, you’ve got that little extra incentive,” Shotwell said. “You want to play against the best, here they are. Every year at the beginning of the season when we see we’ve got a I-A on our schedule, everyone gets a little bit jacked up for that.”
San Diego State opened the season 0-5, but is coming off a 19-12 Mountain West Conference win over visiting Air Force. The Aztecs (1-5, 1-2) are under the direction of first-year head coach Chuck Long, a former NFL quarterback who was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma last season.
“You can see that they’re becoming more schooled, more studied, more precise in their new systems,” Ellerson said of the Aztecs. “They have a weapon at running back.”
The player Ellerson referred to is Atiyyah Henderson, a redshirt freshman who has carried 83 times for 431 yards without a score.
“That’s part of their new culture,” Ellerson said of running the ball. “In the past, San Diego State’s been slinging it all over the park and they’re learning how to run the ball, they’re wanting to run the ball.”
Cal Poly is ranked No. 9 in The Sports Network’s I-AA poll, which factors into I-AA.org’s Gridiron Power Index. The GPI is a simulation of the NCAA playoff selection committee’s formula used to determine what teams reach the postseason.
The Mustangs dropped from No. 7 to 13 in the GPI on Wednesday.
Cal Poly scored four offensive touchdowns last week for the first time against a I-AA opponent all season. It was the first time it had scored at least three offensive touchdowns since a season-opening 44-0 rout of Division II Fort Lewis on Sept. 2.
“We felt good about what we did, but we’ve got to realize it’s a four-quarter game and keep it up the whole game,” Noble said.
The Mustangs depart for San Diego by bus at 9 a.m. today.
What will it be like to play Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium, a venue that has hosted three Super Bowls and at which an NFL game will be played Sunday?
“I don’t know but I’m going to find out,” Noble said. “I’m taking my camera, I know that.”
Report: Gateway looks into luring North Dakota State, South Dakota State from Great West
The Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader newspaper reported Thursday that the Gateway Football Conference is interested in adding North Dakota State and South Dakota State because Western Kentucky might approve a move to the I-A level Nov. 2.
“We’ve had conversations with both North Dakota State and South Dakota State before,” Gateway commissioner Patty Viverito told the newspaper.
Composed of five teams, the Great West is in its third year of existence. The eight-team Gateway has been around for 22 years.