Aug 22, 2018
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — From 2003 through 2006, Cal Poly averaged 16 interceptions and 48 sacks per season.
Those numbers have dropped. The Mustangs have not reached double digits in interceptions since 2014, averaging 7.3 thefts a season, and, with 21 sacks last season, surpassed the 20-sack mark for the first time since 2011.
The trend isn't just with Cal Poly. College football has changed dramatically over the last eight to 10 years as more teams are utilizing no-huddle offenses and spreading out the defenses with multiple formations. The passing game is more sophisticated and teams are better at protecting their quarterback.
"Between the no huddle and the fact they spread you out on defense, there is a lot more space on the field and a lot more fatigue that can set in too," said 10th-year Mustang head coach Tim Walsh. "When you make people run the field, that's when your brain tires a bit as well as the body. That's when people make mistakes and they'll take advantage of you.
"You have to be sound and you have to be in good condition," Walsh added, "and you really have to have a sound understanding of what teams are doing formationally because formations are so multiple these days. In the old days when teams had a tight end, two wide receivers and two running backs, you were pretty sure they were going to line up with two backs. Nowadays, they line up all over the place and you better be sound in how you line up. The predictability is gone."
The spread formations are particularly difficult for the defensive secondary to defend. Cal Poly has an experienced group of cornerbacks and safeties this fall, led by juniors Kitu Humphrey (No. 8 above) and Carter Nichols (No. 29) along with senior Aaron Johnson at the safety positions and seniors Dominic Frasch (No. 9) and Jerek Rosales along with junior Sharky Reza at cornerback.
A quartet of sophomores also are expected to receive considerable playing time in the secondary, including Bradley Mickey and Lepi Lataimua at safety and Daniel Fox at cornerback. The Mustangs also welcomed Kevin Howell, a transfer from Nevada, to the group at cornerback.
Humphrey and Reza both snared a pair of interceptions a year ago to lead a Mustang defense that surrendered almost 300 yards per game passing and 30 touchdowns through the air.
"One of the biggest things we can improve on is our pass defense," said Walsh. "With our experience, we should have a better understanding of how to do the things we're asking them to do. We have four or five guys at each position who have started games and, at the corner position, Howell has done some really good things. Bradley Mickey has done some really good things to get in the mix at safety.
"When we're all healthy and ready to go, we'll have four or five guys at safety and corner that can play," Walsh added. "That will also help us play multiple coverage on pass downs between nickel and dime packages. We're looking forward to those guys showing us what they can do."
The Big Sky Conference is loaded with talented and prolific passing quarterbacks, including Case Cookus at Northern Arizona, Gage Gubrud at Eastern Washington and Jake Maier at UC Davis. Will Mustang fans see more nickel and dime packages this fall?
"We would like to be able to play more nickel and dime formations," said Walsh. "As much as we try to personnel people with what we do on defense, they're trying to personnel you with what they're doing on offense. If they get you to play small and fast, they still have the ability to run the football at you. So you have to be very careful with what you pick and choose.
"Throwing the football is the easiest way to get into the end zone, but if you're sound in what you do on defense, it's also the easiest way to get the ball back to yourself or get them into second-and-long situations, get yourself in the right position to come up with the football with the interception part of the game.
"That's what we're trying to improve upon, trying to make some plays in the secondary when the ball is in the air," said Walsh. "Those three teams can run the football too. That's the concern. When you're that dangerous throwing the football, sometimes you go asleep in the run game. Nowadays you're forced to be sound in everything you do."
Cal Poly, which was No. 1 in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision in team rushing four years in a row (2013-16), opens its 2018 season against top-ranked North Dakota State, No. 1 against the rush a year ago en route to its sixth national title in the last seven years.
Bison quarterback Easton Stick completed 164 of 264 passes (62.1 percent) for 2,466 yards and 28 touchdowns with eight interceptions as a junior a year ago, leading North Dakota State to a 14-1 overall mark and the Missouri Valley Football Conference title. Three of Stick's top four receivers, however, are gone.
Kickoff in the Fargodome is set for 12:30 p.m. PDT.