The Cal Poly football team is all set to kickoff the 2018 season.
It’s a season the Mustangs are hoping is nothing like the 2017 version.
“We want to move forward and try not to think about last year as much as possible,” said quarterback Khaleel Jenkins. “We definitely need to take the lessons learned from last season from those losses and apply those to this season.”
The losses were many a year ago, ten to be exact. Injuries contributed mightily to a 1-10 record that was the program’s worst in more than 50 years.
It was a disappointing follow-up to the the team’s 2016 campaign, which included a trip to the FCS playoffs for just the fourth time in program history.
“I don’t talk to them anymore about it,” said head coach Tim Walsh. “We did at the end of spring practice, we talked about it one more time and I said that’s the last time we’re going to hear about it from me. It’s over with. It’s 2018. The only thing that you can do about that experience is learn from it. All you can do from a good experience is learn from it and how to repeat it, so we have to get back to the good experiences we had in the program.”
Now entering his 10th season with the team, Walsh believes the squad can quickly rebound and once again be among the top teams in Big Sky Conference.
Helping the cause will be the return of 13 starters, many of which are coming back after injuries prematurely ended their 2017 season.
“We have five offensive lineman that have all started games that are coming back, so that has to be a strength,” Walsh said. “Khaleel Jenkins in those five games he played last year, he showed a lot flashes of what he can be, and obviously there’s Joe Protheroe, so offensively, I think there are some pieces in place for us to continue to improve on the offense side of the ball from where we were.”
On the defensive end, Cal Poly doesn’t quite have the same amount of experience to lean on. Three lineman and two linebackers need to be replaced, leaving some question marks heading into the season opener.
Fortunately, the team does bring back a veteran crew of six returning secondary players.
“I think the strength is in the secondary,” said Walsh. “I feel good that there’s five or six guys at safety and five or six guys at corner, so that’s probably the strength. I think we have depth at defensive end and linebacker, but some guys have to prove their worth in the starting positions that they have right now.”
Cal Poly hardly eases into its 2018 schedule. On Saturday, the team starts the year with a road game at #1 ranked North Dakota State.
The Bison are not only the defending national champions, they have incredibly won six of the past seven FCS national titles.
Once again, North Dakota State is favored to raise the championship hardware later this season.
“They’re good. They’re really good,” said Walsh. “They’re big. They’re strong and they’re physical and they believe in what they do. They run the football and they’re going to pound the football and that’s going to be a tremendous challenge to our defense and the fact that we’re pretty young up front, so they’re going to get an awakening to what it’s like to play against the best in the FCS, which is really and FBS school to be honest with you.”
Despite the impressive credentials North Dakota State brings into the game, the Mustangs are feeling confident they can compete with the heavily favored Bison.
“Everyone knows North Dakota State is who they are, but for us, it’s an opportunity to prove what we are and showcase Cal Poly football,” said Jenkins. “We’re ready to go and attack whoever it is.”
The Mustangs will play in one of college football’s most difficult venues, the 18,700 seat Gate City Bank Field in Fargo.
“We love these games. Back in 2016, we played two top 10 teams in a row in South Dakota State and Montana and we’re always expected to lose. We come into the game with a chip on our shoulder when we’re expected to not play very well, especially coming off of last season, we’re going to be overlooked by a lot of teams and I think that’s going to be our advantage.”
North Dakota State leads the all-time series 4-3.
The last game was one fans of both teams likely remember, a stunning 31-28 Bison win in Spanos Stadium in 2007.
North Dakota State rallied from a 28-10 deficit in the last 10 minutes of regulation to shock the Mustangs. The loss prevented Cal Poly from earning an invitation in the FCS playoffs.
No matter what happens over the course of the 2018 season, this will be an historical season for the program.
This year marks the 100th season of Cal Poly football.
“I think it’s a great honor for us to represent the 100th year,” Walsh said. “When you look back at the things that we have accomplished, lots of championships in the last 15 to 20 years. The one that sticks out the most is the 1980 national championship team. The 1960 plane crash, even though it was a negative, it’s a part of our history. It’s a part of who we are. The 1953 undefeated team and you can go back and you can name all kinds of successes and all kinds of events that have happened that have shaped this program and given us the tradition that we do have.”
Cal Poly opens its home schedule on Sept. 8 with Weber State.
Kickoff at Alex G. Spanos Stadium is 6:05 a.m.
Other home opponents include Brown, Montana, UC Davis, Idaho State and Southern Utah.
Road opponents are North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Sacramento State, Northern Arizona and Montana State.