For the second year in a row, my family made the trip down to San Luis Obispo to watch a Cal Poly Football game. Again, we found ourselves leaving at half time. The Mustangs lost to Big Sky Conference rival UC Davis 52-10. The end result did not bother me— what did bother me was the fact that I wasn’t bothered. Then I got to thinking: if I’m not bothered as a die-hard sports fan, then what about the casual fans who are not even showing up to the games as a result of poor results?
“UC Davis responded and we didn’t. We got flustered overall we got out played, out coached,” head coach Tim Walsh said after the game. After that, I realized what exactly was bothering me. How has Cal Poly, a school that prides itself on innovation, out thinking and out working competition, accepted such a defeatist attitude when it comes to the football program?
Cal Poly Football has not struggled for as long as many students may think. Prior to the 2017 team’s 1-10 season, the Mustangs had a winning 2016 season at 7-5 and had only one season with a losing record in 2015 at 5-7 since joining the Big Sky Conference in 2013. Also, the 2017 season was not a fair measure of the program’s effectiveness due to season-ending injuries to both quarterback Khaleel Jenkins and fullback Joe Protheroe.
So, if the quality of football in recent memory is not the problem, then why is Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday nights as empty as a bird’s nest in the winter? One of the first things that comes to mind is the style of football Cal Poly plays. Cal Poly’s offense is a variation of the triple option, which is why you hear people in the stands calling for the Mustangs to “throw the damn ball.”
The goal of the triple option, in an extremely reductionist sense, is to almost always run the football while making it extremely difficult for the defense to identify who has the ball. However this entails a lot of repeatedly running right up the middle of the defense. While this bears a lot of strategic purpose, running straight into a wall of defenders is definitely not the most fun thing to watch, especially when it is the 30th time you’ve seen it in a game.
It is no surprise Walsh implements this style. Prior to working at Cal Poly, Walsh was the offensive coordinator at West Point Army Academy, a program famous for using run-option based offenses such as the triple option. The strategy fits Army well, as it is all about outtoughing and wearing down the opposing defense. The problem with taking that system from Army and trying to implement it at Cal Poly is that West Point student athletes are, by definition, the toughest of the tough. I am in no way trying to be indicative of the student athletes at Cal Poly either, but trying to implement a system meant for army cadets is going to lead to some hitches.
Now, let’s say Cal Poly was the model of perfection in running the triple option and ran away with the Big West Conference every year— pun fully intended. Even in that scenario, the triple option, is not fun to watch. Another issue is that in football, if your offense falters, it hurts the defense and vice-versa. This hurts the team as a whole as they fall behind, and the offense does what they’re trained to do, which is run, making the clock go by much faster. The result is that any comeback attempt is a steeper uphill battle than it already was. Even my younger brother, whose football knowledge does not extend much outside of Madden NFL, knows that if you are losing a football game you (say it with me now)— throw the damn ball.