During the Great West Conference football teleconference call Monday, a reporter introduced a question to Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb by noting that the Thunderbirds have actually almost beaten Cal Poly in recent years.
He had a point, in preparation for the two teams’ meeting at 6:05 p.m. Saturday in Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
After all, even though the Thunderbirds went just 17-59 from 2001 through 2007, and never beat the Mustangs in seven tries during that span, those defeats came by an average of only eight points.
Lamb, though, saw something different while watching film of the games.
“It looks like Cal Poly kind of walked through the games,” he said. “And the Southern Utah guys showed up to play a tough brand of football. I hope our guys can put up enough of a fight for Cal Poly to take us seriously, and that Cal Poly doesn’t walk through the game and we can compete and make it a game for them.”
Perhaps the self-deprecation has merit coming from the man occupying a position from which the prospects of enacting change haven’t been too realistic.
Wes Meier was fired from the job after going 0-11 last season.
Gary Andersen was gone after just one year at the helm in 2003.
Even Rich Ellerson, the current head coach of the Mustangs, left in 1996 after one turn at the wheel when he was reportedly allotted 25 fewer scholarships to work with than Football Championship Subdivision (then Division I-AA) teams were allowed.
But maybe the way the Cedar City, Utah school of 7,509 conducts football business is changing.
This season, the Thunderbirds (3-4, 0-1 GWC) boast a 34-20 win at Texas State and a 14-7 win over Youngstown State, and they lost just 19-14 to Northern Arizona.
“They had a new beginning,” Ellerson said. “That’s a team that I still feel like, a year ago, it got away from them early in the year because they had such an uphill fight schedule-wise.
“At some places, they make (the schedule) years ahead of time and you’re not exactly sure how everybody’s going to be three years from (then) because there are so many ups and downs at our level,” he added. “They got themselves into a hole.”
The Thunderbirds’ showings against the Mustangs reflect as well on them as they may in the other direction for the Mustangs, Ellerson said.
“Our games with them have always been a little bit crazy and always come down to a play or two,” he said. “We didn’t play as well as we can or should but some of that has to do with them. Give them some of the credit for making us look not real good.”
Mustangs junior linebacker Carlton Gillespie said Southern Utah’s mindset could lead to another close game.
“They have a new coaching staff but the mentality of how they play hasn’t changed,” he said. “They continue to fight no matter what.”
If there’s one thing the Thunderbirds will likely have to fight against, it’s the Mustangs’ pass rush.
Cal Poly (4-1, 1-0 GWC), ranked third in the FCS coaches poll and sixth in the Sports Network media poll, set a school Division I record by collecting 10 sacks during a 42-28 win at South Dakota State on Saturday. The performance pushed the Mustangs’ per-game average to five, the best in the FCS.
“We had a couple of schemes we came up with specifically for South Dakota State that allowed us to be pretty efficient,” Gillespie said. “And when one guy starts getting hot, the other guys want to step up. It’s kind of like a competition. It becomes a chain reaction, and that’s something we need to have.”
They may get even more opportunities against the Thunderbirds, who’ve passed 13.4 percent more often than they’ve run.
Part of what led to the sack record, Ellerson said, was that the Mustangs’ defensive backs didn’t reveal their hands before necessary.
“The back end did a really nice job of being able to show one thing and play something else, and make everything develop for the quarterback after the ball was snapped,” he explained.
Southern Utah, on the other hand, allowed UC Davis to complete passes to nine different receivers in a 49-26 road loss Oct. 11.
The Thunderbirds will be without senior linebacker D.J. Senter, who left the contest with team highs of 72 tackles and four sacks. He suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Cal Poly enjoyed plenty of offensive diversity of its own in Brookings, S.D.
In the absence of senior running back James Noble, who broke two fingers Oct. 13, junior Jono Grayson rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries. Also, senior receiver Tre’dale Tolver caught a career-high seven passes.
Noble, who underwent surgery, was in uniform at practice Thursday morning with a wrapped hand.
Ellerson said there was “a chance” that Noble, who played early last season with a cast, could play Saturday.
Southern Utah, Lamb said, put its bye to use adapting to Cal Poly’s “scary” and “unique” schemes.
“The bye week came at a good time for us,” Lamb said. “We really needed the extra week to be as prepared as we possibly can.”
Two weeks ago, the Mustangs had their last bye – their third over a five-week period.
Gillespie said it seems like two months since their last home game, a 49-22 drubbing of South Dakota on Oct. 4.
“It was nice to get back into a rhythm,” he said. “Having a game every Saturday helps you prepare.”
The Mustangs may need to win their next four in order to guarantee themselves at-large playoff consideration from the selection committee.
Needing at least seven wins against fully-fledged Division I opponents, the Mustangs were unable to make up for McNeese State’s Hurricane Ike-induced cancellation of a third-week meeting, and South Dakota is in transition from Division II.
So many players contributing to the South Dakota State win was especially encouraging because it happened so far away from home, Ellerson said.
“We’re going to have to do that again,” he said.
Cal Poly’s next four games are at home before a regular-season finale Nov. 22 at Wisconsin.
“We have at least one more chance to (win on the road), and maybe some more (in the playoffs) if we take care of business,” Ellerson said.