As the team’s fight song (Ride High, You Mustangs) suggests, the Cal Poly football is team is indeed riding high. After finishing the regular season 7-4 overall and tied for fourth place in the Big Sky Conference, the Mustangs were given an at-large invitation to the NCAA FCS playoffs.
It marks just the fourth time in the program’s Division I history, which dates back to 1994, the team has qualified for the postseason. The team’s last appearance was in 2012, a first round loss at Sam Houston State 18-16.
“We’re excited,” said eighth-year Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh. “We’d love to get to round two, but you’ve got to take care of round one first here in Spanos Stadium.”
The Mustangs first round opponent will be a familiar opponent. Cal Poly drew San Diego (9-1), a team it has played and beaten in four of the past five years, including this season, a 38-16 victory in Spanos Stadium.
Despite his team’s success against the Pioneer League champion Toreros, Walsh emphasizes his team faces a significant challenge.
“I think they’ve done a great job playing against us,” said Walsh. “If you really look at the scores at halftime, everyone of them have been close. We’ve been fortunate to outplay them in the second half of every contest, and I know one of their mottos is they want to have payback.”
Since the loss to the Mustangs on Sept. 10, the Toreros have reeled off nine consecutive victories, including a perfect 8-0 conference record.
“They play with a confidence of winning,” said Walsh. “Winning breeds winning. They feel pretty comfortable about who they are and what they can accomplish.”
Walsh noted the Toreros enter the game with the number one rated defense in the nation, combined with the 15th best offense.
“That’s a pretty good combination to have,” Walsh said. “If I’m that head coach, I’m feeling pretty good about where we are heading into the playoffs.”
While San Diego boasts an impressive offense, so too does Cal Poly. The Mustangs are ranked sixth overall nationally, with an average of nearly 500 yards per game.
The Mustangs rushing offense is ranked first nationally, as it has been for four straight years. Cal Poly averages 360 yards on the ground and has scored 37 rushing touchdowns.
Interestingly, Cal Poly’s number one ranked rushing offense does not give it the best time of possession ranking in the nation. The team with that would be none other than San Diego, which holds the ball for 35 minutes a contest. The Mustangs, by the way, are ranked fourth nationally in that category.
As for defense, the Toreros hold a distinct advantage over the Mustangs. While San Diego is ranked first nationally, Cal Poly is ranked 71st, allowing 400 yards per game.
“We played an 11-game grueling schedule,” said Walsh. “No offense to them, they did what they had to do with the schedule that they had, but in the third quarter their starters were out, so it’s a well rested, healthy football team that we’re going to play and we’re kind of a team that’s kind of grizzled, that played hard and done all those things to get to where we are and now we have to play at San Diego team that’s inspired to be here again.”
Saturday’s first round game, which will be broadcast on ESPN3, will be just the second ever home playoff game for Cal Poly. The Mustangs last hosted a postseason game in 2008 when they were upset by Weber State.
The game is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is that it turned out to be the last game for then-head coach Rich Ellerson, who left shortly for Army. Walsh was hired a few weeks later and has guided the Mustangs ever since.
Just like in 2008, the home playoff game will come during Thanksgiving break, which means several thousand Cal Poly students will be out-of-town on holiday break. To make up for their absence, the university is hoping community members will come and fill Spanos Stadium in order to give the Mustangs a greater home field advantage.
“I hope our community will help us because it’s going to be a tough game,” Walsh said. “With 19,000 students not in town for the most part, we’re going to need the community to come out. This is a one-and-done deal. You’re in this thing and you need to win and if you win, you get to prolong your season by another week, so we need to take care of business.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is set for 4 p.m. inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.