Brian De Los Santos
When it comes down to it, it’s just a matter of who can make more plays.
At least, that’s how Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh sees it.
“At the end of the day,” Walsh said, “We’ll see what happens.”
It’s a blatant and simple plan for this weekend’s game, the first-ever playoff game in the Walsh era. But the philosophy is indicative of what the team is trying to to do as Cal Poly travels to Sam Houston State this Saturday at 1 p.m. for a second-round matchup in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Above all else, the Mustangs are trying to keep things simple.
“If we just approach the game that way, good things can happen. If we blow it out of context, then it doesn’t become just the game,” Walsh said. “We’re going to keep that in mind.”
However, it could be one of the biggest games the Mustangs have had to prepare for in the past four seasons, being just the third playoff berth in 19 years at the Division I level. They’ve played the big names, such as Fresno State, San Diego State and Montana, but they’ve never seen a minute past the regular season finale with Walsh.
In 2008, the Mustangs did. Under former head coach Rich Ellerson, the team made history by hosting the first-ever playoff game in Alex G. Spanos Stadium. But Weber State upset one of the most prolific offenses in program history with a 49-35 win over Cal Poly in the first round.
That team had former star Ramses Barden as wide receiver, widely considered one of the best offensive players the program’s ever seen. He was an All-American with Cal Poly, hauling in 206 catches for 4,203, averaging 20.4 yards per catch, and 50 scores with the Mustangs.
Jonathan Dally, who was named by The Sports Network as the fifth-best quarterback in the FCS heading into his senior season, was the player leading the team under center, and the Mustangs had names such as James Noble and Ryan Mole in the backfield.
But that team fell short in its first playoff game, giving up five turnovers in the loss.
The Mustangs are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year.
“We are going to have to execute on all our plays,” quarterback Andre Broadous said. “No silly mistakes.”
A win isn’t going to come easy. The Mustangs are playing a Sam Houston State team that ranks as the top scoring team in the nation (44.5 points per game). The Bearkats also boast the No. 7 rushing offense in the nation, running for 284.91 yards per game, and sit No. 6 in total offense with a 480.45-yard-per-game average.
“They’re great,” defensive lineman Sullivan Grosz said. “They have a good team. Obviously, they made it this far and they know how to win especially looking at it last year, they made it all the way to the championship and lost … Their running game is tremendous, but it’s what we live for.”
It may actually turn out to be a battle of strength vs. strength. One of Sam Houston State’s strong points — maybe its best strong point — is its rushing defense, which has held teams, Football Bowl Subdivision teams Baylor and Texas A&M included, to 76.36 yards per game. That stat ranks for third-best in the FCS.
“They are extremely athletic, they are bigger than we probably are and most teams that we play, and that’s just the way it is,” Walsh said.
Cal Poly’s strength, however, is rushing offense. The Mustangs have the third-best rushing offense in the FCS, running for 333.3 yards per game. That’s centered around running back Deonte Williams, who leads the Big Sky in rushing yards and sits seventh in the FCS with a 132.6 average.
“I think the whole thing comes down to what defense plays better,” Walsh said. “It’s kind of strength versus strength, but the bottom line thing is we better be able to tackle the football, and they better be able to tackle the football. That’s what it’s going to get down to.”
It looks like the Mustangs will have to do so without standout safety Alex Hubbard, who injured his knee in Cal Poly’s regular season-ending 42-35 win over Northern Arizona. Walsh said there’s a big chance Hubbard and fellow safety Dave Douglas will not be making the trip to Texas.
“That just means our offense has to step up,” Broadous said. “Those are great players so our offense are going to have to step up to fill those voids.”
Regardless of their absence, the Mustangs will still have to gear up against a team that reeled off seven straight wins before falling to Heisman contender Johnny Manziel and FBS-foe Texas A&M.
The key to making sure the Bearkats don’t reel off another is keeping a simple attitude, Grosz said.
“It’s just another week,” Grosz said. “We don’t expect this to be the last game of the season. We got to keep it going and that’s the mentality we got to have.”