Mathew Clark

This story was posted at 8:58 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16.

Days after his football team’s Saturday game at McNeese State in Lake Charles, La. was canceled due to possible consequences of Hurricane Ike, Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson was surprisingly whimsical at the school’s news conference Monday afternoon.

While assessing apparently dim prospects of making up for the cancellation by filling a bye date Sept. 27 or Oct. 11 with a coveted 11th opponent, Ellerson saw nearby athletic director Alison Cone un-optimistically shaking her head.

“Come on, Alison, there’s a chance,” Ellerson joked. “We’d play our soccer team. We’ll play soccer for a half and football for a half.”

It’s no wonder Ellerson is so desperate to play anyone.

The Mustangs (1-1), ranked 11th in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) coaches poll, are still waiting to get an opportunity to amend for a 30-28 home loss Sept. 6 to No. 4 Montana.

It saw them miss a potentially game-winning, 27-yard field goal with 38 seconds left, fumble inside their own 5-yard line to yield nine unanswered Grizzlies points, lose another fumble, miss another field-goal try and have a punt blocked and another go just 14 yards.

“They missed that opportunity,” Ellerson said of his players. “They didn’t get in this to practice; they got in this to play.”

As if taking out those frustrations weren’t enough incentive to take the field as soon as possible, the pending schedule may be, due to McNeese State’s cancellation.

One of Cal Poly’s games, Oct. 4 against South Dakota – a school in transition from Division II – won’t count toward a total of seven wins against Division I opponents necessary for playoff consideration, and another, Nov. 22 at Wisconsin, is against a national power ranked eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A).

Consequently, unless a sympathetic selection committee grants an exemption, the Mustangs may need to win all of their six remaining games against FCS foes to make the playoffs.

That gauntlet will start at 4 p.m. Saturday when Cal Poly takes on Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La.

Even when the McNeese State trip was on, Ellerson said, practice was approached like a bye week in order to address a “crisis, if you will, to improve some specific things” like kicking, ball security and sticking to defensive assignments.

“It cuts both ways,” Ellerson said of the unexpected bye. “There’s something to be said for playing every week and keeping that routine and rhythm going, but there’s also something to be said about the health and the ability to correct some issues.”

After the Montana loss, Ellerson opened the kicking spot for competition. Although he said Monday that junior Andrew Gardner “answered the bell fighting” and is ahead of sophomore kickoff specialist Jake West, who will get the opportunities Saturday is still to be determined.

In order to simulate game pressure, Gardner and West have taken turns booting field-goal attempts from about 40 yards while players gather around trying to distract by yelling, spraying water and throwing grass.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make him flinch and he won’t,” Ellerson said of Gardner, who missed the would-be game-winner Sept. 6 and is 2 of 5 on field goals this season. “He’s seen more adversity in the last four or five practices than he’s seen in his lifetime, and he’ll see some more before we kick again.”

Trying to duplicate imposing surroundings could pay off soon.

Although Northwestern State (2-1), coming off a 4-7 campaign a year ago, lost 51-6 at Baylor in week two, that wipeout is sandwiched by home wins over Texas A&M-Commerce (by a score of 30-14) and Grambling State (31-19). At their 15,971-seat Turpin Stadium, the Demons are 44-10 since 1998.

Junior running back William Griffin (a Louisiana Tech transfer who’s rushed for 177 yards and a touchdown on 42 carries) and junior quarterback John Hundley (a Louisiana-Lafayette transfer who’s completed 36 of 65 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions and added 137 yards and two more scores on 39 carries) lead the Northwestern State offense.

Defensively, the Demons – one of only six teams in the country with at least 10 sacks – have been keyed by junior safety Gary Riggs, an Ole Miss transfer and preseason All-Southland Conference First Team selection who’s collected 25 tackles and a sack, and returned an interception 29 yards for a score.

“They’re a solid football team,” Ellerson said. “You can see them pushing some people around and knocking some people off the ball when they’re playing Baylor.”

Cal Poly may be a different matter, especially due to its team speed, Northwestern State head coach Scott Stoker said.

“We’re going to find out where we are,” he said. “We’ll have to play a lot better than we did in the first three weeks.”

Cal Poly wishes it could talk about three weeks of games in the books.

While the athletic department is “still working” to acquire an 11th game, Cone reiterated Tuesday, she’s “not overly optimistic at this point” and it looks unlikely that Cal Poly will be able to find one, even though it’s offering to pick up its own travel expenses. “We’ve really exhausted every opportunity with the schools that have our open dates,” Cone said.

While close to 20 FCS schools share at least one of the open dates with Cal Poly, several already have 12 games. North Dakota State (which is open Sept. 27) already turned down Cal Poly before the season. Another candidate, Nicholls State (also free Sept. 27), was hit hard by the hurricane season, and must remove its stadium’s condemned lights before the facility can be played at again. Nicholls State, which wouldn’t visit Cal Poly, Cone said, didn’t think that could be done in time.

Cone said she reached out to 11 other possibilities sharing at least one of Cal Poly’s byes and also not already having 12 games.

Others meeting the criteria Sept. 27 are: William and Mary, Illinois State, Missouri State, Western Illinois, Bucknell and Jackson State. Those Oct. 11 include Villanova, Howard, Austin Peay and Georgia Southern. Hampton is open both dates.

The closest of that bunch to welcome Cal Poly, Cone said, was Western Illinois, which feared its Saturday hosting of Stephen F. Austin may have been canceled due to weather, but backed off after the Texas school’s resources were left sufficiently undamaged.

In order to make its case to the selection committee, the department even reached out to some Division II and NAIA programs, Cone said, albeit unsuccessfully.

Chief among schools’ reasons for declining, Cone said, was the Mustangs’ season-opening win at San Diego State – one of just two FCS-over-FBS victories this season (compared to 60 such losses).

“It hurts us because we’re a strong team,” Cone explained. “If you have a chance to schedule somebody you think you have a chance of beating, there are more odds to take on the game.”

Ellerson said the disappointment of not being able to play last week, coupled with the seeming unlikelihood of making up for it with an added opponent, could provide a silver lining.

“The lesson is how fragile this thing is and how few opportunities we really have in our football careers,” he said. “So the guys are just that much more focused. Every minute of this game is precious because there aren’t a lot of them.”

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