Cal Poly football head coach Tim Walsh said the “Mustangs spend more time on special teams than any team in the country.”
Even before Saturday’s 21-14 overtime loss at No. 10 Montana (6-1, 3-1 Big Sky Conference), there was no denying the kicking game had been somewhat of a handicap at times this season, and the practice schedule has reflected the area of need.
But even with improvement in certain aspects, the Mustangs (3-4, 2-1 Big Sky) still have to reconcile that the Grizzlies’ two touchdowns in regulation directly followed blocked kicks, and those scores were the lone blemishes on a sterling defensive effort.
Montana knocked down a 26-yard field-goal attempt by Cal Poly kicker Bobby Zalud that would have given the Mustangs a sturdy two-score lead late in the fourth quarter.
Instead of Cal Poly clinching the game, the Grizzlies drove 88 yards and converted the tying touchdown with 12 seconds left, winning it in overtime with another quick score and an interception of Dano Graves.
Montana’s only other score came on a 29-yard drive in the first quarter set up when Herbert Gamboa stuffed Mustangs punter Paul Hundley’s kick on fourth-and-8 from the Cal Poly 35-yard line.
One block was the result of being overpowered in a critical moment. The other was a blown assignment.
“Our team isn’t built with size,” Walsh said by phone following the game. “So, we’re not big on PAT/field goal. So, people can bull us, and if they get under our pads, we have to play low. Obviously, they got some push on us.
“The blocked punt is probably going to be something that somebody’s not going to be happy to see when we have to watch it on film.”
Cal Poly controlled most of the game, outgaining Montana by nearly 100 yards. The Grizzlies had fewer than 250 yards of total offense before the last-minute drive that tied it.
The Mustangs even weathered several other errors, including 81 yards of penalties compared to just 13 enforced against the Grizzlies, and a controversial fumble by slotback Cole Stanford, who appeared to be down before losing the ball.
With Montana bearing down for the potential tying touchdown in the final seconds of the third quarter, Cal Poly linebacker Nick Dzubnar jarred the ball away from quarterback Jordan Johnson as Johnson tried to run the ball in on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line and safety Alex Hubbard recovered it in the end zone.
With the Grizzlies desperately trying to score in Cal Poly territory midway through the fourth, Hubbard came up big again, knocking down a fourth-down pass.
“Our defense played extremely well,” Walsh said, “and they got put in some situations where they had to respond.
“We played so fast, and so physical today. We left everything we had on the field. I’m really proud of the fact our defense played the best game we’ve played all year.
“It’s up there as one of the worst losses I’ve ever had because I told the team if we outplay them for a long period of time, we’ll win, and we outplayed them for a long period of time, but we didn’t get the reward for doing that.”
The loss puts Cal Poly’s back against the wall. To keep their playoff hopes alive, the Mustangs are likely going to have to run the table in their final five games, which begins with a home matchup against Northern Arizona next Saturday and includes another home date with No. 4 Eastern Washington, likely the toughest FCS opponent on the schedule.
“There were a lot of people questioning us after we played so poorly against Yale,” Walsh said. “We’ve got to beat NAU to get right back in it, and that’s what we plan to do. And then, if we do that and keep playing well the rest of the way out, then we’ll see what happens.”