Roughly 1,400 miles away from San Luis Obispo resides Washington-Grizzly Stadium, a site with which the Cal Poly football team is quickly becoming familiar.
The Mustangs played at Montana twice last year, losing a regular-season contest 36-27 before winning 35-21 for their first Division I-AA postseason victory in school history.
Now, sixth-ranked Cal Poly (6-2) visits No. 2 Montana (7-1) for the third time in the last two seasons in a brewing rivalry game oozing with playoff implications.
“It gives us confidence,” Cal Poly tailback James Noble said of the playoff win last year, “but at the same time, we still know that they’re trying to get us back for what we did to them last year.”
Cal Poly linebacker Kyle Shotwell agreed.
“The last couple games we’ve played them were really close, good games,” Shotwell said. “Competitive, really heated, really fun. That rivalry. every time we get Montana on our schedule, it’s one that the guys circle and really look forward to. Outside of (UC) Davis, these are the guys that we look forward to playing most. It’s our biggest rivalry game outside of Davis.”
The nonconference game kicks off at 11:05 a.m. Saturday and will be televised locally on KSBY with a pregame show beginning at 10:30.
The Mustangs are 2-1 in the Great West Football Conference and the Grizzlies 6-0 in the Big Sky Conference. In USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin ratings, the Great West is the top-ranked I-AA conference and the Big Sky is No. 4.
Montana has won seven straight despite losing workhorse tailback Lex Hilliard to an ACL injury before the season. Hilliard rushed for 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
“They’ve continued to be a good running football team,” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said of the Grizzlies. “I don’t know that they’ve necessarily replaced Lex Hilliard. He’s a special guy. They’ve got two very good backs. They continue to be balanced.”
The two backs Ellerson referred to are Reggie Bradshaw and Brady Green, who have rushed for 403 and 361 yards, respectively. The two have combined for 15 rushing touchdowns.
“That’s exactly what you expect from a powerhouse like Montana,” Shotwell said of the Grizzlies not missing Hilliard. “It’s kind of like what we’re trying to establish here.
“That’s the type of program Montana is. They’ve got guys who come from every direction, every angle and be just as good if not better than the guy who played there the year before.”
Cal Poly’s offense is also built around the running game.
Noble, a sophomore Walter Payton Award candidate, has rushed for 769 yards and five scores this season. He has averaged 5.4 yards per carry in seven games.
Noble, who ran for school records of 1,578 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, has averaged 109.9 yards per game despite the fact he is still recovering from a sprained left ankle.
“If we block and throw as well as (Noble) is healthy,” Ellerson said, “he’s really kind of a barometer for our football team right now offensively.”
Noble carried 25 times for 100 yards in the Mustangs’ 16-14 win at I-A San Diego State last week.
Playing at Qualcomm Stadium a week ago might benefit Cal Poly in terms of crowd noise. Expected to be filled to its capacity of 23,183, Washington-Grizzly Stadium is likely to actually seat more fans than were at Qualcomm (20,974) last week.
To simulate crowd noise, Cal Poly conducted 11-on-11 drills at Thursday’s practice with its first-team offense hearing non-stop whistles and shouts from the point it broke the huddle through the end of each play.
“We do a lot of stuff to challenge our communication in practice,” Ellerson said. “They understand what it is we’re trying to simulate. They know what they’re going to be able to hear and not hear.”
It’s a luxury to have experience playing in that much of a hostile environment for a team with sophomores starting at quarterback, tailback and each of its top two receiver positions.
“We’re more ready as a team,” Noble said. “We have a lot of guys who have been there and know the environment we’re going into. That helps a lot as far as preparing for the noise.”
Shotwell said that although the noise simulation is helpful, nothing can replicate the decibel level the Mustangs will experience Saturday.
“I don’t think you can ever ignore the crowd,” Shotwell said. “It’s something that we kind of know how to deal with. We know what to expect, that’s the biggest thing. For some of the guys who go there for the first time, it’s a shock.
“I’m confident we can deal with it. Whether we can handle it again, we’ll find out Saturday, but we’ve done it in the past, so that’s encouraging.”
Shotwell, a Buck Buchanan Award candidate, had 12 total tackles and a I-AA team record four sacks last week.
“Going into the (San Diego State) game, we wanted to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” said Shotwell, whose 87 total tackles are 24 more than any other player in the Great West. “My D-line did a great job of getting penetration and really opening it up so I could run through there and get those sacks.”
Ellerson said Shotwell has been able to apply pressure on the quarterback from the mike (middle) linebacker position largely because he played the whip (outside) spot when current Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jordan Beck was a Cal Poly senior in 2004.
Ellerson compared Montana’s offense to that of UC Davis, which Cal Poly beat 23-17 in the Horseshoe Classic on Oct. 7.
“I think their offense is similar to Davis, but they run it better – a little bit more balance than Davis,” Ellerson said. “Davis’ quarterback is probably a little bit more mobile. They have a more balanced attack offensively. There are not a lot of weak links out there. There’s not somebody you can disregard.”
Cal Poly’s defense, which is ranked seventh in fewest points allowed per game (12.6) in I-AA, saw some changes in its secondary last week.
After struggling in a 29-28 loss to South Dakota State on Oct. 21, 6-foot-4-inch left cornerback Anthony Randolph was replaced in the starting lineup by the 5-10 Gene Grant.
Toward the end of the San Diego State game, Grant was replaced 6-foot Andre Thomas.
“He didn’t get challenged much,” Ellerson said of Thomas. “It’s encouraging, but he didn’t get challenged.”
The Mustangs, who are ranked No. 8 in the Gridiron Power Index, likely need to win two of their final three games to reach the playoffs.
“These are the biggest games of the year coming up,” Shotwell said.