Fresno State Football: First Look At The Cal Poly Mustangs
The Bulldogs will host FCS Cal Poly in non-conference play for the second straight season.
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An old in-state foe returns to the Valley again.
Fresno State Football: First Look at 2022 Non-conference Opponents
Cal Poly | Oregon State | USC | UConn
The Fresno State Bulldogs have a pair of high-profile Power 5 opponents on their non-conference schedule in 2022, but before they tangle with the likes of Oregon State and USC, the Cal Poly Mustangs will make yet another trip to Bulldog Stadium this fall.
This matchup hasn’t been particularly close in recent years, including a 53-point laugher last September, but after a unique odyssey spanning the last couple of years, the Mustangs might finally be in a position to demonstrate signs of life while chasing the program’s first winning season since 2016.
Location: San Luis Obispo, California
Conference: Big Sky
Series History: Fresno State is 33-10-2 all-time against Cal Poly.
2021 Record: 2-9 (1-7 Big Sky)
Head Coach: Beau Baldwin (third year; 2-12 at Cal Poly, 97-47 overall). The early part of Baldwin’s tenure in SLO has definitely been an adventurous one. COVID and injuries shuttered the Mustangs’ spring 2021 season after just three games, then they had to face the fifth-toughest schedule of any FCS team last fall and won just two games.
Heading into year three, however, we may finally learn more about just how good the program can be and how much progress they’ve made. While it may not be quite as successful as his third year was at Eastern Washington — the Eagles won the FCS championship in 2010 — Cal Poly could surprise some people.
Elijah Ponder, DE
Ponder’s first full year as a starter was an unqualified success. He led Cal Poly with eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss, earning an honorable mention nod from all-Big Sky voters for his efforts and setting the tone for a potential revitalization on defense in San Luis Obispo.
Chris Coleman, WR
Fresno State fans will probably remember Coleman as a pass catcher who showed promise in limited action across three seasons with the Bulldogs. That promise went down south with him in 2021, where he led the Mustangs with 43 catches, 590 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. It included a solid showing in last year’s game at Bulldog Stadium (four catches, 65 yards, and a touchdown), so Cal Poly knows at a minimum they have a WR1 they can rely upon.
Spencer Brasch, QB
After transferring from Cal to Cal Poly, Brasch started seven games last season with mixed results. He was instrumental in a season-opening victory over eventual Pioneer League co-champion San Diego, but also threw three interceptions in two other contests and finished the year completing 54.9% of his throws for 1,725 yards and ten touchdowns against nine interceptions.
Spencer Brasch with a dart to put @calpolyfootball up 14-7! 🎯
📺 @ESPNPlus #ExperienceElevated pic.twitter.com/7WaSJGLLpX
— Big Sky Football (@BigSkyFB) November 14, 2021
Laipeli Palu, LB
Mustangs mainstay Matt Shotwell finally exhausted his eligibility, but replacing him may not be as tough as it seems if Palu can build on his 2021 campaign. He finished third on the team with 51 tackles and was the only Cal Poly defender with two interceptions.
Xavier Oliphant, CB
Oliphant’s first extended run as a starter last season turned out just fine. The Danville native started seven games and picked up 2.5 tackles for loss and five pass breakups, the latter of which helped him secure the secondary’s highest pass-defense grade from Pro Football Focus (72.0). He also made an impact on special teams, returning a missed field goal 100 yards for a score against Norther Arizona.
@espn @calpolyfootball @j_oliphant2 @kzeising @ChrisBabcock2 RU Effin kidding me? 109 yd missed field goal return for Xavier Oliphant!!! pic.twitter.com/mPbLdRG172
— dzeising (@dzeising2) November 21, 2021
By just about any measure other than offensive SP+, where Bill Connelly put the Mustangs at 58th among FCS teams at seasons end, Cal Poly was rough on this side of the ball. They ranked 115th by averaging a mere 4.33 yards per play, 112th with a -9 turnover margin, 108th in converting just 29.8% of third down tries, and 121st with a 57.8% red zone conversion rate.
The upside is that nearly every major contributor is back for 2022, so there’s plenty of room for improvement thanks to simple continuity. Brasch had his moments under center, but he’ll need to beat fellow returners Kahliq Paulette and Conor Bruce for the starting gig. They could also expect improvement from running back Shakobe Harper (82 carries, 251 rushing yards, three touchdowns) along with steps forward in the passing game from Coleman, Zedekiah Centers (35 catches, 310 yards), and tight end Ryan Rivera.
Despite some graduations, the offensive line should also improve with more stability. They return five players who started at least five games in 2021, including sophomore left tackle Austin Anderson and junior right tackle Charles Lincoln, who earned high marks from PFF with a pass-blocking grade of 84.5.
This unit took its fair share of haymakers throughout 2021, as well, allowing 6.03 yards per play and coughing up at least 38 points in eight different games. The challenge now is to retool without Shotwell, who led the team in tackles in each of his last four years, and other departures like Fenton Will (graduated) and Myles Cecil (transferred to Vanderbilt).
Having Ponder up front can paper over a lot of troubles, but others will need to step up and bolster the pass rush. Fellow sophomore Josh Ngaluafe is a name worth watching since he’s the only other returning defender who had multiple sacks last year.
The linebacker unit, at least, should still be in pretty good shape with the senior duo of Palu and Dustin Grein (36 tackles, 6.5 TFLs) back to lead the way. Dylan Wyatt, another former Fresno State player who had seven pass breakups last year, will help shore up the secondary with Oliphant and Tommy Griffin (36 tackles, four pass breakups).
The Mustangs should take a few steps in the right direction this fall, but chances are they won’t be able to offer much resistance against what should be one of the most complete teams in the Group of 5.
Fresno State 49, Cal Poly 14