Lauren Rabaino

The words “Dakota State” may as well translate into “bad memories” in the language of Cal Poly football.

Of course, there are variations.

“North Dakota State” means the sting of surrendering 22 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes of a 2007 game to lose 31-28 to the Bison, then the No. 1 team in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). A year prior to that, it was interpreted as disbelief from Fargo, N.D. in a defeat with a 51-14 margin – the worst in the seven-year tenure of Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson.

“South Dakota State,” conversely, was construed in 2007 to denote being gashed by running back Cory Koenig for 259 yards – the second-most by an opponent in Cal Poly history – in a 48-35 loss. In 2006 its connotation of collapse was giving up 23 unanswered points in the final eight minutes of a 29-28 shortcoming.

The meaning of simply “South Dakota” will be written when the Mustangs host the Coyotes in Alex G. Spanos Stadium at 6:05 p.m. Saturday in the first meeting between the two.

“We respect all the Dakota schools,” Mustangs senior guard Stephen Field said. “Personally, I have another level of respect for them.”

Ellerson isn’t hesitating to group the first-timers with the seasoned tormenters.

“They’re like the rest of the schools from the Dakotas we’ve faced over the years,” he said. “They don’t freak out if they get a little bit behind.”

A purely numerical look might seem to suggest such a predicament for South Dakota, in its first year of transitioning from Division II to the FCS. But the Coyotes, who went 27-8 from 2004 to 2006 before dropping to 6-5 a season ago, managed Sept. 6 to lose just 24-13 at Northern Iowa, which is ranked 10th in the FCS coaches poll, and one of their losses – 31-30 at Southeastern Louisiana – came down to a two-point conversion attempt with time expired.

“They’re ‘transitional,’ but they’re at the top of that Division II echelon,” Ellerson said. “And there’s just not that much difference (between the divisions).”

He may have a point. After all, Cal Poly swung up and dispirited Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) San Diego State 29-27 Aug. 30. And No. 2 Montana – which beat Cal Poly 30-28 Sept. 6 – could only get by Division II Central Washington 38-35 last week.

“South Dakota’s on a par with the best teams on our schedule,” Ellerson said. “They can break our heart.”

If that happens, junior quarterback Noah Shepard will likely be involved.

“Our offense kind of goes with him,” Coyotes head coach Ed Meierkort said.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Shepard has completed 58.9 percent of his 107 passes for 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns (all but one of them to junior receiver Dan Skelly) with two interceptions, and has rushed for a team-high 240 yards and three more scores on 39 carries.

“His legs are involved in the passing game as well,” Ellerson said. “He’ll pull it down and start to run, keep his eyes downfield and make some incredible throws on the run.”

As versatile as Shepard may be, the Coyotes trailed 35-0 midway through the fourth quarter of a 37-18 loss at Montana State last week.

“We just could not get anything going offensively,” Meierkort said.

No. 8 Cal Poly (2-1) certainly has, routing Northwestern State 52-18 Sept. 20. But due to McNeese State canceling a third-week meeting with Cal Poly due to Hurricane Ike, the Mustangs are coming off their second of three bye weeks over a five-week period.

“It’s a challenge,” Field said of maintaining continuity.

The cancellation, Field said, only magnified the importance of each game for Cal Poly, which stands to lose more playing South Dakota (2-3) than it does to gain.

Because the Coyotes are in transition from Division II, a win wouldn’t count toward a total of seven Division I victories required for playoff eligibility by the selection committee.

With a Nov. 22 date at FBS power Wisconsin concluding their slate, the Mustangs may consequently need to win their next six to be considered, unless a sympathetic committee grants an exemption.

“Every game is precious, especially for us seniors,” Field said. “We have to live in the moment and take advantage of it now.”

If there had to be so many byes, Field said, placing one in the first week of school, which started Sept. 22, wasn’t such a bad thing.

“It’s good to have a week there to get relaxed and settle in with your new schedule and make sure you get off to a good start, especially because we’re on the quarter system,” he said.

Ellerson couldn’t agree more.

“The first week of school is exactly the right time to have a bye,” he said. “If I could choose where it would go, that’s where it would go every year.”

The Mustangs are fourth in the FCS in total offense, averaging 458 yards per game.

As instrumental as anyone is senior receiver Ramses Barden, who leads the country with 156 receiving yards per game – 25 ahead of the runner-up.

“He’s phenomenal,” Meierkort said. “They know that and they’re committed to chucking it to him. But with the triple option they run, you can’t focus on him first. You’ve got to stop the run first.”

Meierkort emphasized his team “can’t afford” to fall into a hole like it did last week.

“One of (the Mustangs’) earmarks is their tough guys,” he added. “And that’s why they’re successful in this day and age when everyone wants to be pretty. They’re kind of anti-what you would think of California.”

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