Brian De Los Santos
Cal Poly’s defense has stepped up every time it’s needed to this season.
Against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) foe Wyoming, cornerback Nico Molino nabbed an interception in the final minutes to help the Cal Poly football team to its first FBS win under head coach Tim Walsh. A week later, the Mustangs forced UC Davis off the field on downs with less than two minutes left on the clock. Cal Poly then got the ball back and was able to nab the victory with a few victory kneels.
“It shows that all this work we’ve been putting in in the offseason is paying off,” Molino said at Monday’s press conference. “We got a big win with Wyoming and Davis, so everything we’ve been working for, all the things we’ve been talking about and all the extra time we put in has really finally come together.”
Playing the Big Sky’s best scoring offense, they’ll need that same kind of defensive contribution again this week when the No. 23 Mustangs (3-0, 1-0 Big Sky) travel to play North Dakota (3-1, 1-0) at the Alerus Center on Saturday.
“As a head coach, you would always want to be a defensive sort of team,” Walsh said. “We’re playing really well on defense. Right now, to be honest with you, we’re close to playing our best.”
The numbers agree. The Mustangs are ranked No. 13 in the nation in total defense, allowing 287 yards per game, and also boast the No. 27 scoring defense, allowing 19 points per game. Cal Poly also ranks 18th against the run (101 yards per game) and 45th against the pass (186 yards per game) — as opposed to the Mustangs 119th ranking a year ago.
“We made the mentality when we came out in spring ball that we’re going to make some changes,” linebacker Kennith Jackson said following the team’s 28-20 win over UC Davis last weekend. “We lost our (defensive) coordinator, we had one fill in and he came up with a new attitude. We’re not going to be pushovers, we’re not going to give up tons of yards in the pass game, we’re going to be relentless and we’re going to get to the ball every play.”
The Mustangs have this year, forcing six turnovers through the past three games and grabbing at least one interception in each of those contests. The team’s also done so with an entirely new secondary, losing guys such as four-time all-conference honoree Asa Jackson coming into the year.
And the Mustangs can get better, safety Alex Hubbard said.
“There’s room for improvement,” Hubbard said. “We keep getting these wins; we keep holding down the last drive, against Wyoming, against Davis. We made plays, that’s what we got to do.”
The Mustangs have also stepped up during the transition to a new defensive coordinator, Josh Brown, and a new defensive backs coach, Neil Fendall.
“The guys that came in — Dave Douglas, Matt Reza, Alex Hubbard — those guys are just out there making plays,” Jackson said. “Nico Molino and Vante Smith-Johnson, they are all out there busting their butts off. They’re doing what they’re asked to do, and they’re making plays when it’s time for them to make plays. It’s huge and it’s giving us tons of momentum going into this next Big Sky game.”
They’re going to need it against quarterback Marcus Hendrickson and the North Dakota offense. Hendrickson has completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 970 yards with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions, helping North Dakota average 46.8 points per game. He’ll have an offensive line blocking for him that averages about 310 pounds and features no lineman smaller than 6-foot-4.
“We’re going to play some size,” Walsh said. “I have a feeling that North Dakota philosophically believes that they would like to line up and knock us around because we’re not real big on the defensive side off the ball. But we are very athletic, so hopefully it’s a great matchup and we’ll have to find out Saturday.”
Offensively, the Mustangs are proving to be just as stout as their defensive counterparts. Running back Deonte Williams ranks third overall in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in rushing, averaging 161 yards per game, and is the leading rusher in the Big Sky.
With his contribution, the Mustangs have the third-best rushing offense in the FCS (328 yards per game) and the best in the conference. They also rank 27th in the FCS in total offense, with 417 yards per game, and 31st in scoring offense (31 points per game).
“Pick your poison, that’s your deal. You can do whatever you want.” Walsh said. “(Andre Broadous) has kind of been the target in the last couple of weeks, but he does a tremendous job of making sure that he’s not selfish, he distributes the ball properly.”
Broadous hasn’t posted the same numbers as he did in his season-opening 135-yard two-score performance against San Diego. He had 34 yards passing and a touchdown against Wyoming and followed with 68 yards against UC Davis.
Regardless, he’s helped lead Cal Poly to its first 3-0 start since 2006. Walsh, however, is hesitant to answer any questions about how this team compares to others in years past. For now, the Mustangs are simply focusing on North Dakota.
“We were probably better than the university of San Diego, were better than Wyoming, were better than UC Davis, and that’s about all you can say,” Walsh said. “I think if you look any further than that, you’re making a mistake. … How good are we? I’ll tell you in about eight weeks.”
Jefferson P. Nolan contributed to this article.