SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- Cal Poly captured a share of the Big Sky Conference championship in its first year in the league, won nine games for the first time since 2005 and earned a berth in the 2012 NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the third time in eight seasons, posting its ninth winning record in the last 10 years.
Fourth-year head coach Tim Walsh is already looking ahead to next year.
"We'll have 18 returning starters and I think the schedule gets a little more demanding in the Big Sky with Eastern Washington and Montana as conference games," said Walsh, 26-19 in four seasons at the helm of the Mustangs. "The conference will continue to improve, but we should be better too.
"This team has left an imprint of who we are and our goal for 2013 is to be Big Sky Conference champs again," Walsh added. "We have the ability to do that."
Cal Poly won its first seven games before suffering losses at Sacramento State and Eastern Washington, then posted victories over Idaho State and Northern Arizona to share the Big Sky title with Eastern Washington and Montana State and earn a berth in the FCS playoffs.
All three teams earned first-round byes in the FCS playoffs. Cal Poly fell 18-16 at Sam Houston State in the second round Saturday while the Eagles and Bobcats advanced to the quarterfinals.
"I don't know how many people believed that we could win the conference title in our first year in the Big Sky, but that describes the players on the 2012 team," said Walsh. "They took that challenge, met it head on and really accomplished all their goals for the 2012 season."
Those goals included beating rival UC Davis in The Battle for the Golden Horseshoe, winning the Big Sky title and earning an FCS playoff berth.
"This season was a fly by," said Walsh. "To be on the field with these guys for 16 weeks and have the feeling that you never want it to end -- that is the ultimate compliment to our players. It was their tremendous spirit that allowed us to accomplish those goals."
Cal Poly will lose seven starters -- quarterback Andre Broadous, slotback Deonte Williams, center Geoff Hyde, linebacker Kennith Jackson and cornerback Nico Molino top the list -- but as many as 26 players who started or gained significant playing time -- 11 on offense, 13 on defense and two on special teams -- will return for the 2013 campaign.
"We don't lose a ton of guys, but the productivity of the players we lose, that's where you start in terms of filling holes for next year," said Walsh. "We probably need a transfer offensive lineman of some sort, we will always be looking for speed at wide receiver and slot and, on the defensive side of the ball, we will really be looking for young defensive linemen and looking for linebacker depth. With the exception of Molino, we have a lot of secondary people coming back as well as Bijon Samoodi and Kevin Britt (both of whom sat out the entire season with injuries)."
Williams finished No. 2 on Cal Poly's all-time single-season rushing chart with 1,506 yards, surpassing the 100-yard mark 10 times in 12 games, a school record, and was the No. 1 rusher in the Big Sky and No. 9 in the FCS in rushing, averaging 125.5 yards per game. He had 11 career 100-yard performances as a Mustang to go with four 100-yard games as a freshman at Northern Arizona in 2008 en route to Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors.
Molino intercepted four passes this season, all in the first four games, and is 38th in the nation and first in the Big Sky with his four thefts. Jackson finished second on the team in tackles each of his four seasons at Cal Poly, earning 302 total stops to land fifth all-time on the Mustangs' career tackles chart. Both Molino (North Dakota) and Jackson (Idaho State) picked off two passes in a game this season.
Broadous concluded his Mustang career with 1,459 yards rushing and 3,120 yards passing. The Mustangs' starting quarterback the last two years plus four more games as a sophomore in 2010, Broadous accounted for 30 rushing touchdowns and 31 passing scores in his career. He was intercepted just five times in 379 career passing attempts.
His departure sets up what will be an interesting three-way battle for signal-calling duties between freshman-to-be Tanner Trosin, sophomore-to-be Chris Brown and junior-to-be Vince Moraga this spring and next fall.
"It will be a go-get-em wide-open battle in the spring," said Walsh. "It's going to be a difficult decision. All three guys who return bring something different to the table. Therefore, we're going to have to sort out which guy truly fits our offensive scheme for 2013. Combine all three and we have the guy we want."
As a team, Cal Poly was No. 1 in the FCS in passing efficiency, No. 3 in rushing offense (324.2 yards a game), No. 7 in scoring offense (38.6 points per contest) and No. 8 in sacks allowed (.83 per game). In addition, the Mustang defense showed considerable improvement this fall compared to a year ago. In 2012, Cal Poly was No. 45 in scoring defense (86th a year ago) and No. 57 in total defense (90th in 2011).
Last Saturday against Sam Houston State, Cal Poly faced a team averaging 44.5 points and 480.4 yards per game offensively and held the Bearkats to 18 points and 241 total yards. The Mustangs, however, turned the ball over three times, gave up a safety on a blocked punt and committed three second-half personal foul penalties, thwarting numerous scoring opportunities and/or defensive stops.
"We all made mistakes that, without them, could have won it," said Walsh. "In any playoff system, everyone will lose except one. You just have to take a deep breath and look at everything as a whole, all the things we accomplished.
"I couldn't be more proud of the fact that this team took on the 2012 season with confidence," Walsh added. "We had great team chemistry and an attitude that the players weren't going to do anything but win the Big Sky championship. We need to accept all the plaudits of the 2012 season regardless of the Sam Houston State game."
Out of the polls in 2011, Cal Poly regained its spot in the top 25 after defeating UC Davis on Sept. 22 and climbed steadily up the polls each week to as high as No. 11 in both the coaches and media polls before falling to Sacramento State and Eastern Washington.
The Mustangs, 4-1 at home each of the last three seasons, went unbeaten at home this fall for the first time since the 2005 squad posted a 6-0 mark at home. Cal Poly has won 47 of its last 56 home games (84 percent) and has claimed nine of its last 18 games on the road since going winless away from Alex G. Spanos Stadium in 2009 as part of an eight-game road losing streak.
Presented by French Hospital Medical Center, Cal Poly football earned its 10th winning season in the last 12 years. The Mustangs captured four Great West Conference titles in the eight-year history of the league (2004, 2005, 2008, 2011) before moving to the Big Sky this fall and has earned NCAA Division I FCS playoff berths in 2005, 2008 and 2012, reaching the quarterfinals in 2005 before falling at Texas State.
The Mustangs have won 74 of their last 114 games (65 percent) dating back to the 2002 season finale and have won 28 of their last 55 games on the road (51 percent).
Willie Tucker, who capped his sophomore campaign with six catches for 152 yards, including Cal Poly's only touchdown of the game against Sam Houston State -- a 50-yard pass on a double-reverse from Ryan Taylor -- was Cal Poly's top receiver this season with 28 catches for 517 yards and seven scores. Junior Cole Stanford, who produced 12 plays of 25 or more yards this season, added 17 catches and 241 rushing yards.
Sophomore slotback Kristaan Ivory contributed 728 rushing yards and six catches, scoring 10 touchdowns, while junior fullback Akaninyene Umoh added 439 rushing yards, three catches and a trio of touchdowns.
Other top returnees include Giovanni Sani, Kyle Zottneck, Lefi Letuligasenoa, Stephen Sippel and Weston Walker on the offensive line, receiver Lance Castaneda and fullback Brandon Howe on offense and linemen Jake Irwin, Chris Judge, Sullivan Grosz, Chris Lawrence and Andrew Alcaraz, linebackers Johnny Millard, Nick Dzubnar and Cameron Ontko and secondary personnel Vante Smith-Johnson, Jordan Williams, Alex Hubbard, Matt Reza and Dave Douglas on defense. Dzubnar was Cal Poly's top tackler with 107.
Bobby Zalud, who handled all kicking duties (55-for-55 PATs, 12-for-16 field goals, 40.6 punting average), and return specialist Chris Nicholls (24.0 kickoff return average, 8.5 punt return average) also return.