Sheila Sobchik

His team had just dismantled Division II Fort Lewis 44-0 in its season opener.

But Cal Poly football head coach Rich Ellerson made it clear there is always room for improvement after the lopsided home win Sept. 2 in front of 5,857 fans at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.

“We’re going to look at this tape and there are going to be 10,000 things we screwed up and have to do better,” said Ellerson, who is 36-23 since taking the helm in 2001. “We get to enjoy this win for about 24 hours but by tomorrow evening, we’ve got to be as critical as we can possibly be of our performance. It’s going to be that kind of a schedule.”

It will be that kind of schedule because the Mustangs (2-0), who are ranked third by The Sports Network in Division I-AA, play three of their first four games on the road and have dates at Division I-A San Jose State and San Diego State.

Not to say there are not benefits of playing half of the team’s road games in the first month of the season – Cal Poly has three home games and a bye from Sept. 30 to Oct. 21.

“It’s good that we get these three road games in without school going,” Cal Poly sophomore slotback Ernie Cooper said.

Cooper, who is listed as a wide receiver, was one of the few surprises against Fort Lewis. Lined up in the slot, the former emergency quarterback rushed for 34 yards and two touchdowns on just three carries.

“I’m excited to get on the field however I can and contribute to the team, in the slot or at wideout,” said Cooper, who played nine games on special teams last year. “They switch me back and forth.”

Cooper, who redshirted in 2004, also caught a 9-yard pass against Fort Lewis.

“He’s a guy that we’re excited about,” Ellerson said of Cooper. “He came in as a quarterback and has just zeroed in at the receiver position. He’s one of our faster players. There’s nobody even close to him in terms of foot speed.”

The Mustangs already had a potent trio of offensive playmakers returning who helped the team go 9-4 and reach the quarterfinals during its first appearance in the Division I-AA playoffs last year.

James Noble rushed for a school-record 1,578 yards and 16 touchdowns, Ramses Barden caught 40 passes for 655 yards and nine scores and Matt Brennan threw for 828 yards and four touchdowns last season.

And all three were freshmen.

“We have a whole bunch of threats,” Cooper said. “We can beat them on the ground up the middle or around the edges, or we can beat them deep with our quarterback. Our offensive line is blocking great.”

Great blocking is right.

Through its first two games, Cal Poly has allowed no sacks, averaged 255.5 rushing yards per game and has nine different players averaging at least 4.0 yards per carry.

Left to right, all five of Cal Poly’s offensive linemen projected as starters in the preseason were in the starting lineup at some point last year.

Quick (left)?tackle Josh Mayfield, quick (left)?guard Julai Tuua, center Stephen Field, strong (right) guard Will Hames III?and strong (right)?tackle Dylan Roddick combined to start 37 games last season.

Field, an Arroyo Grande High graduate, started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season.

Along with the emergence of senior receiver Justin Belcher, the addition of Cooper as yet another sophomore playmaker on the perimeter means the Mustangs have the potential to improve upon last year’s impressive 352.8 yards of total offense per game.

“We’ve got a few guys in key positions that are redshirt freshmen and sophomores and haven’t played a lot for us,” Ellerson said. “We were thinking they were going to be good and it looks like we’re not too far off.”

As for the defense, which has featured a player in the front seven to become a third-round NFL draft pick each of the past two seasons, things look promising to say the least.

When the Mustangs won 17-0 at Weber State on Sept. 9, it marked the first time in 38 years Cal Poly had pitched shutouts in consecutive outings.

In two games, Cal Poly’s defense has allowed just 229 yards of total offense, forced four turnovers and recorded seven sacks.

“Our defense was the story of the game,” Cooper said after the rout of Fort Lewis.

The numbers are even more impressive considering the fact that the Fort Lewis game was the first in their current positions for Cal Poly defensive coordinator Payam Saadat, defensive backs coach Johnny Burnett and linebackers coach Terrol Dillon, who was special teams quality control coach at national champion Texas last year.

“To pitch a shutout on the first day on the job, that’s a heck of a deal,” Ellerson said

The Mustangs have a player at each level of the defense who made an impact last season – nose tackle Chris White (10.5 sacks), middle linebacker Kyle Shotwell (158 tackles) and cornerback Courtney Brown (seven interceptions).

Cal Poly kicker Nick Coromelas is 2 for 4 so far on field goals, including a 49-yarder against Fort Lewis. He missed an extra point, however, in the same game.

The return game is a work in progress, as the Mustangs experimented with four players returning kicks and punts against Fort Lewis.

All things considered, the Mustangs appear capable of surpassing their historic success of 2005. What impact the long haul of a 12-week regular season will have remains to be seen.

Cal Poly lost 14-7 at Texas State last year to end its season in a game many thought slipped away.

“It was bitter to lose to Texas State,” Cooper said. “We thought we could play with those guys. Hopefully we’ll be back there this year and our expectations are really high. A national championship is always in the back of our minds.”

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