The Sports Network
By John Hooper, FCS Correspondent
DATE & TIME: Saturday, November 29th, 9:05 p.m. (et).
FACTS & STATS: Site: Alex G. Spanos Stadium (11,075) -- San Luis Obispo, California. Surface: Natural Grass. Television: None. Home Record: Weber State 5-1; Cal Poly 5-1. Away Record: Weber State 4-2; Cal Poly 3-2. Series Record: Tied (3-3). Last Meeting: September 15, 2007 (Cal Poly, 47-19 at Cal Poly). Conference: Weber State - Big Sky; Cal Poly - Great West. Sports Network Ranking: Weber State (12); Cal Poly (3). Nicknames: Weber State Wildcats; Cal Poly Mustangs. Coaches: Weber State - Ron McBride (24-21); Cal Poly - Rich Ellerson (56-33).
GAME NOTES: Weber State has come a long way since Sept. 15, 2007. That's when it took a 47-19 beating at the hands of the Cal Poly at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
The Wildcats will be back at the same facility for the first round of the playoffs, but this time as the automatic-bid winner of the Big Sky Conference. It will be WSU's first playoff berth since 1991 and marks the first time that the Wildcats have finished tied at the top of the standings since 1989.
Cal Poly was on the cusp of earning a seed to the postseason. But the kicking game cost the Mustangs in an early season loss to seeded Montana and again in a 36-35 regular-season finale loss at Wisconsin. A win over the Badgers at Camp Randall would have propelled the Mustangs into one of those top four seeds for the postseason.
Kicker Andrew Gardner has been a source of concern for the Mustangs. He missed three critical extra points against Wisconsin and missed a potential game- winning, 27-yard field goal with 38 seconds left against Montana. Gardner won the San Diego State game with a 21-yard field goal in the final seconds.
In the FCS playoffs for just the second time, the Mustangs did well in their debut against another Big Sky team in 2005, knocking off Montana at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Cal Poly has caused defenses headaches this season with its unique option- based attack that is ranked No. 1 nationally (461 yards per game) on the way to a Great West Conference title.
Although the Mustangs boast the nation's third-best rushing offense (301 yards per game), it's best player is wide receiver Ramses Barden, a two-time Walter Payton Award finalist expected to go early in this year's NFL draft. Barden (61 receptions, 1,149 yards, 18.8 average, 16 TDs) is a matchup nightmare for defenses with his speed and 6-6 frame. Barden has caught a TD in each of the past 19 games, surpassing the previous marks held by Jerry Rice for FCS and former Pittsburgh Panther Larry Fitzgerald in Division.
Speedster Tredale Tolver (29 catches, 13.1, three TDs) takes pressure off Barden on the other side of the field.
The player charged with leading the prolific offense the past couple of seasons is senior quarterback Jonathan Dally (1,775 yards passing, 21 TDs, one interception, 644 rushing yards, nine TDs). In his first season at Cal Poly in 2007, he set numerous school records, including the mark for all-purpose yards (3,001). In 2008, Dally is No. 1 in FCS in passing efficiency (186.6) and ranks 29th in total offense (242 yards per game).
Cal Poly has a backfield comprised of Ryan Mole (606 yards, 10 TDs), James Noble (570 yards, nine TDs), Jono Grayson (299 yards, five TDs) and fullback Jon Hall (296 yards, one TD).
The much-maligned Cal Poly defense of a year ago, finishing 63rd in total defense in 2007 (allowing 264 yards per game) has shown improvement in 2008. The improvement has started with reviving the pass rush (36 sacks, second in FCS).
Leading that unit this season has been senior defensive end Sean Lawyer (nine tackles for loss, eight sacks) and outside linebacker Carlton Gillespie (12 tackles for loss, eight sacks). Linebacker Fred Hives II is the Mustangs' leading tackler with 78 stops on the campaign.
The most experienced of a Mustangs' defense that ranks fifth in turnover margin (+1.40) and 14th against the run (97 yards per game) is senior rover Mark Restelli (46 tackles, one interception). If there's a weakness in the Cal Poly defense, it is defending the pass.
The Mustangs rank 110th in FCS, surrendering 255 yards per game. But strong safety David Fullerton (four interceptions) and cornerback Asa Brown were both All-Great West Conference selections.
That vulnerability could prove problematic against a WSU squad that is fifth nationally in passing.
Much like their opponent, the Wildcats have a well-rounded, explosive attack that has the potential to score from any field position they have. The Wildcats' field general has been sophomore Cameron Higgins (3,808 yards, 34 TDs, 12 interceptions), a Payton Award finalist.
One of big cogs in the nation's fourth-ranked offense is Tim Toone (67 receptions, 1,230 yards, 18.4 yards per catch, six TDs). Toone ranks sixth in the nation in receiving yards per game (102.5 yards per game). Another key element is tight end Cody Nakamura (42 receptions, 682 yards, 16.2 yards per catch, nine TDs), while Bryant Eteuati (41 catches, 11.6 yards per catch, five TDs) offers big-play potential with his speed. Eteuati, one the top most dangerous returnmen in FCS, rejoined to the lineup last week after a month- long suspension.
The most consistent weapon in Weber State's offensive arsenal is running back Trevyn Smith (1,344 yards, 18 TDs). Smith led the Big Sky in rushing for the second consecutive season this fall, and is tied for first in FCS in scoring (12.0 points per game) and 16th in rushing yards per game (112). Smith is also a dangerous receiving threat coming out of the Weber State backfield (54 receptions, 11.3 yards per catch, six TDs).
The key to a win for Weber State Saturday might be its defense. The key for the Wildcats will stopping the run first before worrying about stopping Barden. Weber State has been able to stop the run effectively this season (124 yards per game). But of course that's all relative to the Big Sky rushing attacks they've faced, and certainly all 11 FCS opponents don't really offer the kind of running game Cal Poly does.
The Wildcats' defense is led by a safety Beau Hadley (111 tackles, three interceptions), while a pass rush that ranks 25th in the nation in sacks (2.42 sacks per game) is marshaled by defensive end Kyle Linehan (14.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks). Hadley teams with cornerback Josh Morris, who leads the team with four interceptions, rounding out a defense that ranks 52nd in FCS (324 yards per game).
Weber State shares two common opponent with Cal Poly, Montana and Idaho State. WSU beat Montana 45-28 and Idaho State 59-27, while Cal Poly dropped a 30-28 decision to Montana and beat Idaho State 49-10.
The game, at least on paper, has the potential to be one of the more exciting games of the first round, and for that fact the FCS season. Coach Ron McBride, an offensive schematic whiz, will have a few wrinkles for fellow offensive mastermind Rich Ellerson in a matchup that pits strength against strength.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cal Poly 38, Weber State 31.
11/27 12:11:20 ET