Following its 23-17 Great West Football Conference win over visiting rival UC Davis on Saturday, the Cal Poly football team moved up one spot Monday to No. 4 in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA poll.
The Mustangs (5-1, 2-0) were ranked a program-best No. 3 following a 3-0 start, but fell to No. 5 following a 17-7 loss at Division I-A San Jose State on Sept. 23. UC Davis fell from No. 16 to 18 in the poll.
Getting in position to move up in the rankings was not easy.
Including Saturday, each of the last four games between Cal Poly and UC Davis have been decided by seven or fewer points.
“Every game we play these guys, it’s like that,” Cal Poly senior middle linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Kyle Shotwell said after the game. “It’s a back-and-forth battle, no matter what. We’re a resilient team.”
The Mustangs are indeed resilient, having come back from a 14-3 fourth-quarter deficit for an 18-14 win Sept. 30 over Southern Utah before they erased a 10-3 hole Saturday.
Emotion stirred by the Horseshoe Classic rivalry might have had something to do with Cal Poly’s comeback, UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs suggested.
“Any time you play in a rivalry game like this, the emotions run so high,” he said. “You take away the third quarter and I thought we had a lot of success moving the ball. The third quarter just made it tough. To me that was really the big factor in the game.”
Biggs added that the Mustangs “hide their coverages really well,” which is part of the reason Cal Poly is ranked second in Division I-AA in fewest points allowed per game (9.7), just behind San Diego (9.6).
After missing the start and throwing three interceptions against San Jose State, Cal Poly sophomore quarterback Matt Brennan has re-established himself.
In the past two games, Brennan has engineered a pair of comebacks, thrown for 206 yards and two touchdowns with just one interception and has an efficiency rating of 109.4.
“Kyle Shotwell is pretty much the unspoken leader of the team,” Brennan said. “He talked to me before the (UC Davis) game and told me the way that I acted in the fourth quarter of the Southern Utah game is the way I needed to keep the offense going in this game. After the game, he came up to me, said ‘I believe in you,’ gave me a big hug and that meant the world to me. I’m elated.”
Brennan’s numbers have gone up as targets downfield are emerging other than 6-foot, 6-inch sophomore wide receiver Ramses Barden, who has caught 29 passes for 526 yards and four touchdowns.
Those targets are sophomore deep threat Tredale Tolver (eight receptions for 108 yards and one touchdown), senior possession receiver Justin Belcher (six catches, 72 yards, one score) and true freshman slotback Jono Grayson (five touches, 39 yards).
“They’re all weapons, they all have speed and great hands,” Brennan said.
“(Opponents) are going to make it harder to get the ball to Ramses,” Ellerson said. “He’s a threat out there but is going to draw a crowd. That means opportunities for the other guys. We just have to be more consistent spreading the ball around.”
Cal Poly’s backfield looked different Saturday as backup tailback Fred Hives II returned from a left toe injury that had kept him sidelined since the season opener Sept. 2.
The 210-pound Hives II has carried 18 times for 80 yards and a score in the two games he has played and offers a hefty change-of-pace back to shifty cutback runner James Noble.
Hives II also saw time Saturday at fullback alongside Walter Payton Award candidate Noble, who is second in the Great West in rushing yards (501) on just 91 carries.
Ellerson said that the fullback role for Hives II might continue. Throw in Grayson and talented redshirt freshman H-back Jon Hall, and the Mustangs have a growing young stable of backs.
“That’s what we envisioned when the season started,” Ellerson said of Hives II playing alongside Noble. “(Hives II and Noble) are not quite 100 percent (healthy) but hopefully they got out of this one well and with two more weeks, we can look a little more like we thought we were going to look coming out of the gates.”
Against its four Division I-AA foes so far, Cal Poly has averaged 263 yards of total offense per game.
“We’re still not a juggernaut on offense, but we were efficient,” Ellerson said. “We did a great job with field position.”