Lauren Rabaino

For seven games, the Cal Poly football team’s offensive linemen paved the way for the No. 1 offense in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), both in points and yards.

Alex G. Spanos Stadium’s student section has serenaded Southern Utah’s sideline with impromptu chants in honor of All-American receiver Ramses Barden, a budding day-one NFL Draft pick for whom T-shirts were distributed proclaiming simply, “Throw It To Ramses.”

Local media members routinely inquired and prodded for weeks as to the severity of running back James Noble’s hand injury, which forced him to miss two games in a row before last week’s 49-10 drubbing of Idaho State. (He’s one of four Mustangs with no fewer than 25 rushing attempts to be averaging at least eight yards per carry.)

Opposing coaches have praised quarterback Jonathan Dally – the top-rated passer in all of Division I, who’s been intercepted only once – to the point of nomination for the Walter Payton Award, given to the FCS’ best offensive player.

But through it all, typical for an offensive line, the protective front operated outside of the spotlight.

That may change when the No. 3 Mustangs (6-1) host North Carolina Central (2-6) for homecoming at 4:05 p.m. Saturday.

Sophomore center Jason Cox and senior left guard Stephen Field, both starters, each left in the third quarter of last week’s game with sprained left knees.

Neither is likely to play Saturday, Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson said Monday.

Redshirt freshman Stash McGuinness is expected to start at center, as fellow redshirt freshman Maurice McClure is at left guard.

“We haven’t missed a beat,” sophomore right tackle Art Muñoz said. “They’re Cal Poly players. They’re fast; that’s our main thing. Everyone was recruited into this system to be that kind of player. They’re good athletes and they know our system.”

Sophomore right guard Will Mitchell also voiced assuredness.

“They’ve been prepped well working with the second team this season,” he said. “The drop off isn’t far at all. There will be a lot more expected of them coming up so soon, but they’ve shown this week that they can do it and learn the tendencies and chemistry we had with the other two.”

Ellerson agreed, particularly in McClure’s case.

“Maurice, especially, is one of those prime-time guys,” said Ellerson, who played center at Hawaii in the mid-1970s. “We frankly wish he’d played more up until now because we think he’s a real talent.”

The Mustangs offensive line will have to deal with another real talent next week against UC Davis, which has won four straight. Aggies senior defensive tackle John Faletoese, a 6-foot-3, 292-pound Buck Buchanan Award candidate, is a widely projected second-day NFL Draft pick who’s blocked four kicks this year.

If there were a time North Carolina Central could present a challenge, it could be now.

After playing six straight games on the road, the Eagles topped Edward Waters 34-14 last week.

“Our confidence seems pretty high,” Eagles head coach Mose Rison said. “We’re growing.”

Last week, redshirt freshman Michael Johnson, a transfer from Tulsa, completed 9 of 21 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions. Prior to that, he’d been picked off just once.

“He doesn’t have a whole lot of experience being in hostile environments, but he’s carried himself really well the last couple of weeks,” Rison said.

Three of the scores went to 6-2, 180-pound junior receiver Will Scott, who had four catches for 119 yards.

“They have really gifted guys on the perimeter,” Ellerson said. “On an island, you’ll struggle.”

Scott, named the Eagles’ Offensive MVP last year, won the college division triple jump at this year’s Penn Relays with a mark of 50 feet, 8 _ inches.

He’s taken 35 catches for a team-best 646 yards and five touchdowns this season.

“That’s been the strength of our football team,” Rison said. “We have the ability to throw the ball deep.”

Scott’s counterpart, senior Wayne Blackwell, has also caught 35 balls, for 427 yards and six scores.

“They have some receivers that anybody in the country would like to have,” said Ellerson, who added that the Eagles’ draws and screens are “well designed for what (the Mustangs) do defensively.”

North Carolina Central has had reason to be resourceful, ranking 107th in the FCS in rushing yards per game, at just 91.9.

Still, though, the Mustangs have enough cause to not look ahead to UC Davis, against whom a win (coming on the heels of a win this week) would likely guarantee an at-large playoff berth.

In 2006, the Mustangs gave up 23 unanswered points in the final eight minutes of a 29-28 loss to South Dakota State, and last year, they yielded 22 unanswered in the final 10 of a 31-28 defeat at the hands of North Dakota State.

“We don’t talk about any of that stuff,” Muñoz said. “This week is this week.”

That kind of in-the-moment presence took on an especially important intensity when McNeese State canceled the teams’ third-week meeting, leaving the Mustangs with just nine games against fully-fledged Division I foes. Seven victories against such opponents are required for playoff eligibility, and the Mustangs can reach that standard over the next two weekends.

“You pick up the newspaper every Sunday morning,” Ellerson said, “and you can pick the teams that didn’t understand that – just how fragile the game is, how precious every opportunity is.”

It doesn’t seem to be lost on the Mustangs, especially in light of the recent, season-crippling homecoming collapses.

“Teams with that type of (2-6) record are dangerous,” Mitchell said. “We have a mindset to finish strong. We’re attacking – we want to run the scoreboard up.”

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