There was a time, much earlier this fall, when Saturday night’s non-conference college football matchup between defending NCAA Division I national champion Eastern Washington University and future Big Sky Conference member Cal Poly – which will join the league as a football-only member next fall – might have been worth circling on the calendar.
But that was before both teams had their hopes of making the 2011 Football Championship Subdivision playoffs ravaged by injuries.
So now it would seem that pride – rather than playoff dreams – will be the main motivational factor when the Eagles (4-5 overall, 4-3 in the Big Sky) and Mustangs (5-4, 3-1 in the Great West) kick it off at 6 in Alex G. Spanos Stadium in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
“Both of us are a little beat up, and it’s unfortunate,” said Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh, whose Mustangs are unbeaten at home, but had a four-game winning streak snapped by a 24-17 loss to Great West rival UC Davis last weekend. “This probably could have been for the playoffs for us, and, for (Eastern), to stay ranked in the top five in the country if the injury rash hadn’t hit them.
“These are two teams that are probably good enough to play in the postseason, but the unfortunate reality is that injuries are part of the game, so a lot of it is going to be playing for pride.”
Eastern, which had a four-game winning streaking snapped by a 43-26 loss to Portland State back on Oct. 29, is coming off a bye week and hoping to keep its chances for a winning season – which would be its 14th in the last 16 – alive.
“It’s a challenge to keep the team motivated, but we have to reset our goals,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said. “We still have a chance to finish with a winning record, which would be a real accomplishment, considering everything that has happened.”
The Eagles had hoped to use their bye week to heal up physically and prepare for Cal Poly’s spread option offense. But senior All-American defensive tackle Renard Williams is still listed as doubtful because of the ankle sprain that kept him out of the Portland State game, and his backup, Evan Cook, was not expected to make the trip because of shoulder and knee injuries.
With its defense all but gutted, Eastern’s best chance of slowing Cal Poly’s running game will probably be to keep the Mustangs’ offense off the field. And Walsh believes the Eagles, with senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and his stable of veteran receivers, have the ability to do that, given the chance.
“I would like us to be able to run,” said Walsh, whose Mustangs are averaging 241.3 rushing yards per game, “and we hope we can slow down their pass. But it’s going to be a difficult challenge, because their quarterback and wide receivers are phenomenal players.”