Kyle Shotwell and Courtney Brown are possibly the two best players on Cal Poly’s defense, which ranks No. 1 among 117 Division I-AA teams in fewest points allowed per game.
Just don’t ask the sideline-to-sideline senior middle linebacker Shotwell or the ball-hawking senior cornerback Brown what it’s like to have that claim.
“I didn’t even know that we were No. 1, to tell you the truth,” Shotwell said Thursday after practice.
The Mustangs (4-1), who are ranked fifth in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA poll, have pitched two shutouts and are allowing just 8.2 points per outing. Cal Poly has forced 13 turnovers, rung up 18 sacks and given up only 184.4 total yards of offense per contest.
“I didn’t know we were,” Brown said of being the top-ranked scoring defense in the division. “We just go out and play defense. The stats I didn’t even know. I don’t think too many of the guys know it.”
Cal Poly carries that kind of level-headed, workmanlike approach into its 32nd Horseshoe Classic rivalry game against visiting Great West Football Conference foe UC Davis at 6 p.m. Saturday.
The 16th-ranked Aggies (2-2) have won the last two contests in the series, which began in 1939 but did not become an annual event until 1978.
“I told the guys, ‘If you’re excited to play this game, you’re excited about who this opponent is and you’re excited about this rivalry, those things need to be reflected in how we practice Tuesday and Wednesday,’” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said. “That’s not something that shows up on game day.”
Thriving in the Mustangs’ double-eagle flex scheme, which uses a 3-4 base, Buck Buchanan Award candidate Shotwell is 11th in Division I-AA in total tackles per game (10.8).
Brown said the biggest reason Cal Poly’s defense has had so much success is continuity.
“We’ve been playing together for a long time,” he said. “Most of us have been on this defense for four years together. The chemistry is just there right now.”
The 6-foot, 2-inch Brown, who has an NFL body, picked off seven passes last year. He has 18 tackles with one interception and four pass deflections this season.
Shotwell, Brown and Ellerson agreed that UC Davis senior quarterback Jon Grant is the best signal caller Cal Poly has faced all season. The Walter Payton Award candidate is sixth in Division I-AA in passing yards per game (261).
“In my estimation (Grant) is the best quarterback we will see all year,” Ellerson said. “He’s got a great group of receivers and a veteran offensive line that does a great job of protecting him. They’re a formidable outfit.”
Shotwell echoed those sentiments.
“You think of great quarterbacks in the country, you’ve got to put his name on the list,” Shotwell said. “We’re going to have to play a pretty close to perfect game because any mistake you make, he’ll capitalize on it. He’s that good.”
Cal Poly’s offense has struggled all season but showed positive signs last week in scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter of an 18-14 comeback win over Southern Utah.
Those two touchdowns were delivered by sophomore quarterback Matt Brennan, who threw for 116 yards and two scores with no interceptions.
Brennan has completed 42 of 88 passes for 645 yards and six touchdowns with four picks so far this season. Three of those interceptions came in a 17-7 loss at San Jose State on Sept. 23.
“He hasn’t played as well as he played last year,” Ellerson said of Brennan, who quarterbacked the team to both its first Division I-AA appearance and win ever in 2005. “We need him to play better.”
Part of the earlier struggles is because Walter Payton Award candidate sophomore tailback James Noble sat out the San Jose State game with a sprained left ankle and was hobbled the week prior in a 17-10 win at Sacramento State.
Noble, who rushed for school records of 1,578 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, carried 27 times for 130 yards against Southern Utah.
In Cal Poly’s 20-13 loss at UC Davis last year, Brennan was making his first start filling in for injured starter Anthony Garnett and Noble was sidelined as well.
“We hope so,” Ellerson said when asked if Noble and Brennan returning with more experience could make things different. Ellerson added, however, he is not yet sure if Noble is 100 percent healthy.
It appears backup tailback Fred Hives II will return to the lineup for the first time since the Sept. 2 season opener after missing Weeks 2-5 with a left toe injury. He saw plenty of repetitions in Thursday’s practice.
Cal Poly hasn’t beaten UC Davis in San Luis Obispo since a 17-13 win in 1996. Each of the last three games in the series have been decided by seven or fewer points.
“Especially since we lost the last two years (to UC Davis), we’re really itching to get that win,” Brown said. “We’re going to have to grind it out. It’s going to come down to the last play. I don’t think anybody’s thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park just because James and (Brennan) have more experience.”
“With a game like this, there’s always that extra emotion,” he said. “It’s our rivalry. I feel like kind of naturally, players tend to focus more. It feels a little bit different. There is excitement surrounding the campus.”
Ellerson is impressed by 14th-year UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs’ spread offense, among other parts of the Aggies’ framework.
“The thing they have going that I really admire and am jealous of is that their system has been in place for a generation,” Ellerson said. “As players and coaches, there is so much continuity. They’re so familiar.”
The last time the two teams met in San Luis Obispo, UC Davis won a 36-33 thriller that some analysts considered the best game of the year in Division I-AA. The Mustangs set their home attendance record (9,387) in that contest.
The expected number of spectators Saturday is uncertain because of the ongoing Alex G. Spanos Stadium renovations, which university officials hope to have finished by the Oct. 21 homecoming game against South Dakota State.
The gates will open at 4:45 p.m. Saturday, a full hour and 15 minutes before kickoff.
“Last week (the fans’) energy and how they were during the game, the players really fed off that,” Shotwell said of the 8,168 in attendance against Southern Utah. “Some of those third downs to get us off the field, the crowd went wild. It’s like having a 12th man out there. It’s always fun when there are more students there.”