The Cal Poly Mustangs reside in the Football Championship Subdivision - the collegiate tier formerly known as NCAA Division I-AA. Even though San Jose State will be taking a step out of the FBS rankings to play a supposedly inferior opponent, Cal Poly cannot be overlooked. Two seasons ago, the Michigan Wolverines underestimated Appalachian State and were rewarded with the most embarrassing loss in college football history. The Mustangs almost repeated the feat in 2008 after taking Wisconsin, another Big 10 "powerhouse", to an overtime nail-biter in Madison. Cal Poly eventually lost that game, 35-36, but its 8-3 record was good enough to win the Great West Conference and earn an FCS tournament berth. The Mustangs are definitely no team to sleep on after finishing the 2008 campaign ranked No. 8 in FCS Coaches Poll and having won at least seven games in the team's last six seasons.
There has been a lot of turnover since the Mustangs appearance in the tournament last year, including a new head coach. Tim Walsh was the offensive coordinator at Army for two seasons prior to accepting the head spot at Poly. The most hype surrounding the San Luis Obispo-based program in recent years came from wide receiver Ramses Barden. A 2009 ESPN Skills competition participant, Ramses is a 6-6, 227-pound wideout who was selected in the third round of this year's NFL Draft. He tied Randy Moss's single season NCAA record for consecutive games with a TD reception at 11, and recently inked a four-year, $2.5 million contract with the New York Giants.
This is a very offense-happy club. Last season, the Mustangs were ranked No. 1 nationally at the FCS level in scoring offense (44.4 ppg) and total offense (487.45 ypg). The team's spread offense featured a two-headed monster backfield that ran for 18 TDs, a First Team All-GWC quarterback in Jonathan Dally and of course the All-American Ramses Barden at receiver. The gaping hole that Barden's 67 receptions, 1,257 yards and 18 TDs has created will be tough to fill, along with all the other offensive positions. Only five starters return on this side of the ball, three of which are linemen. Senior fullback Jon Hall is also back (57 carries, 354 yards, 2 TDs), but every other position has a question mark over it. Walsh hinted during spring practice that every offensive skill position was wide open competition. Junior quarterback Tony Smith will be competing with redshirt freshmen Doug Shumway and Andre Broadous for the starting role. It is likely one of these three guys will end up being the starter, but it could also be none of them with eight players on the quarterback depth chart.
For the last eight years, the Mustangs ran a 3-4 or flex defense. Now under Walsh's tutelage, Cal Poly will implement the 4-3 defense with eight returning starters. Three starting defensive linemen are back, including First Team All-GWC senior end Carlton Gillespie who posted 12.0 tackles for a loss and 8.0 sacks last year. He, along with senior DE Ryan Shotwell (9.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and DT junior James Chen, will cement a formidable line that combined for 16.0 sacks in 2008. Every member of the starting secondary is back as well. This squadron is led by senior strong safety David Fullerton who collected 32 tackles, 4 INTs and 6 PBUs a season ago.
San Jose State Cornerbacks vs. Cal Poly Receivers. This sector of the Spartan secondary could be the weakest part of its strong defense. So this has to be a game to take advantage of some unproven Poly wideouts, and serve as a confidence-builder for the State corners. Solid pressure upfront from San Jose State will translate into timing mistakes with quarterback and receivers for the Mustangs. The Spartan corners should be there to jam Poly's receivers at the line and then look for errant passes to pick. There are nine players on Mustangs' WR depth chart who have never caught a pass in a game, further backing up their inexperience. Guys like Peyton Thomas, Alex Germany, Austin Carter and Brandon Driver could pad the stats during this contest.
Cal Poly will get its first taste of an FBS opponent, Ohio University, the week prior to visiting Spartan Stadium. The Mustangs could be battered and bruised after playing a MAC school, but then again, San Jose State could be licking its wounds from its first three opponents. Poly has the potential to pull off the upset, evidenced by the near monumental defeat of Wisconsin, so State can't cruise into the idle week too early. And you can't disregard the close game (13-10) against FCS opponent UC Davis last season where it seemed the team was just going through the motions. The Spartan defense will get a pair of scores on its own in this one, and State will win by double digits in its final out-of-conference game to get its first win of the season.
Scott Cooley is a Contributing Analyst to Inside Sparta. You may contact Scott with any questions, comments, or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org
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