I sincerely wonder what’s going on up at Cal Poly this week. Do Mustangs practices resemble one of those Lord of the Rings prelude-to-battle scenes where an unholy army of orcs gathers strength? Or, like my wife’s high school friends who went there, are the players just sitting around getting wasted while watching re-runs of Deadliest Catch?
To find out, I got a hold of San Luis Obispo Tribune reporter Joshua D. Scroggin, who was kind enough to offer his insights:
AztecsKillingHim: To Aztecs fans, Cal Poly I and II represent a nadir — the final reduction of a once-proud program to a pile of smoldering rubble. What kind of significance do those games hold for the folks up in San Luis Obispo?
Joshua D. Scroggin: Though the San Diego State victories rank very high among some of the greatest wins in program history — and certainly in the Division I era — neither one has the significance of the loss to Wisconsin in 2008, the game where Cal Poly led almost from beginning to end but lost in overtime after the Mustangs kicker missed three extra points. The Aztecs victories were big. But I think people realize that it was the lowest point of a down era in San Diego. Plus, the loss to Wisconsin was huge in gaining respect on the East Coast. It helped get Rich Ellerson to Army.
AKH: Does the mere mention of SDSU elicit smug grins and snickers from Poly fans? ‘Cause it should.
JD: Like I said, I think people in San Luis Obispo realize what state the SDSU program was in when Cal Poly took those games. They know the program has improved. I don’t think anyone here is snickering about this game. They know it will be a tough one and could easily get ugly.
But here is where I think some Poly fans might have a gripe: They don’t seem to get respect from the Aztecs fans. Sure, SDSU was down those years, but Cal Poly was also up. Even after the first game, it felt like the attitude coming out of San Diego was that the Aztecs should dominate the rematch. But that 2008 team was arguably the best in Cal Poly program history. It was definitely the best offensively.
Now, the teams are meeting a few years later. I think the Mustangs deserve a little respect for the two wins. I have a feeling the coaching staff is taking Cal Poly seriously. If the players and fans are not, it would be a mistake.
AKH: That said, it is well known that Rich Ellerson won those games because he is a malevolent, all-powerful wizard. Is new coach Tim Walsh capable of similar acts of sorcery?
JD: For the record, Rich had some regrettable losses, too. There were a couple of blown leads against the Dakota teams. He shouldered a lot of blame for the Wisconsin loss by backing his star-studded offense with a walk-on kicker who also folded in a close loss to Montana after the SDSU game. Ellerson gambled and lost plenty of times.
Walsh had a big win last season when Montana was ranked No. 1 to start the year. In other close games, he’s had trouble sealing the deal. The Mustangs have blown leads to rival UC Davis each of the past two seasons. Last year’s 1-point loss kept them out of the FCS playoffs. There was a lot of controversy about who Walsh played at quarterback in last year’s game against UC Davis. A costly interception got the ball rolling for the Aggies after Cal Poly had built a three-score lead.
AKH: How does this Cal Poly team compare to the ones that made us curl up in the fetal position and rock like Leo Mazzone?
JD: I’d rate the team about the same defensively with a scheme that might be a little easier to prepare for, but it’s also less vulnerable. Hope that makes sense. Ellerson’s defense put the cover guys on one-on-one islands a lot. The 4-3 lets Walsh play a little more zone. They don’t have to blitz as much, but they can be very aggressive in play calls.
Offensively, the team is nowhere near as skilled and experienced. There’s a solid group of running backs and experience on the offensive line, but the receivers are young and have yet to prove themselves. Andre Broadous is capable of shouldering a big load at quarterback. He was almost the entire offense in last season’s closer-than-expected loss at Fresno State.
AKH: If you were Rocky Long, what aspect of the Mustangs’ team would concern you the most?
JD: The offense, and I think Rocky has his finger on the pulse there. Cal Poly has been practicing a no-huddle, Oregon-style shotgun spread offense pretty extensively. The Mustangs also stuck to their traditional under-center, double-slot triple option. There’s really no telling which offense they’ll rely on more. I think Long is aware that both schemes are out there and is preparing for both.
Either way, Cal Poly will likely be run-first out of both set-ups. With San Diego State sandwiching this game between the bowl win over Navy and this year’s game against Army — two similar double-slot offenses — maybe it would be better for Cal Poly to go with the spread.
AKH: What area would you try to exploit?
JD: Cal Poly has to perform well on special teams to win the game. Kicker James Langford has a legitimate leg. He booms kickoffs and has the potential to nail long field goals. He has to be perfect. The Mustangs are also strong in the return game. Cornerback Asa Jackson, who you saw make a big interception return as a true freshman in 2008, is now a very effective punt returner, and running back Mark Rodgers was one of the best kickoff returners in the FCS last year. The Mustangs need to get some swings in field position with their special teams.
AKH: After the WAC was gutted last year, Cal Poly was one of the teams rumored to be on Karl Benson’s list of replacements. Was that ever a realistic possibility?
JD: I don’t think so. There’s not enough money supporting the department right now. There are facilities needs. There would have to be scholarship increases, and not all of the programs are fully funded as is. But I think there are enough people around the program who want to see the football program make the leap to the FBS eventually. So, while I think there is interest from both the WAC and Cal Poly, it just isn’t realistic right now.
AKH: Do you think SLO could support an FBS program?
JD: SLO on its own likely would not support an FBS program. If the county as a whole banded together and supported the team, I think it could work. But the program suffers from a serious lack of exposure. There are plenty of people at both ends of the county who do not know or even care to understand the level the Mustangs play at. I’ve heard people ask me if they’re Division II.
People are surprised to hear sometimes that the Cal Poly basketball team could play in the same NCAA Tournament against the high-major teams that they bet on every year. There are going to be some home football games broadcast on local TV this season, which is a positive step. But until the program establishes itself as a known brand in the county, it won’t have enough support to fill a larger stadium.
AKH: OK, let’s cut to the chase here: It’s not going to happen again, is it?
JD: I don’t think so, but anything can happen. I think it’s more likely that San Diego State wins comfortably, but the Aztecs have enough issues (receivers/defensive line) to make them a little vulnerable.
AKH: I’ll take that as a no.
JD: I’ll put it this way. If this game becomes Cal Poly upset III, it will be a bigger deal in San Diego than it will be in San Luis Obispo.