The Cal Poly football team is finding out how hard it is to maintain championship aspirations as injuries continue to chip away at the integrity of its depth chart.
The Mustangs also continue to be nagged by game-changing special teams plays.
Each of those aspects conspired to help further sink Cal Poly’s Big Sky Conference title and FCS playoff hopes in a 17-13 loss to Northern Arizona despite a stellar defensive effort at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday.
“Obviously, we’re not the same offensive team as we were when we started as far as our health,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said, “but again I’m not going to use that as an excuse. We’ve got to play with the guys who are healthy, and we have to win with the guys who are healthy.”
Already having lost leading receiver Willie Tucker to a season-ending knee injury and having cycled through three quarterbacks with injuries of their own, Cal Poly had another trio of offensive players sidelined by the end of the game.
Lefi Letuligasenoa, a four-year starter at guard, was in street clothes in the second half.
Freshman receiver Cam Akins limped off the field late, and junior slotback Kristaan Ivory ran the ball once before it was determined his ankle sprain was too severe to play.
“It takes away some of the things we do a little bit,” Mustangs receiver Chris Nicholls said. “It hurts having really dependable players who’ve made plays over the years like Willie and (Ivory). It doesn’t change too much, but some of the consistency I would say. If (Ivory is) in on this play or Willie’s in on this play, you know what you’re going to get every time.”
The Lumberjacks (6-2, 4-1 Big Sky) got the go-ahead score on a 96-yard kickoff return by Marcus Alford early in the fourth quarter. This coming after a blocked punt and field goal helped Montana beat the Mustangs last week. Cal Poly has also previously given up two punt returns for touchdowns this season and had two of its own punt returns go down as fumbles when the ball bounced off of one of its own blockers.
Saturday, even though the Mustangs (3-5, 2-2 Big Sky) got the ball back courtesy of a couple big defensive stops, the offense didn’t function well down the stretch.
After the kick return by Alford, Cal Poly had consecutive offensive drives of six, five, four and four plays on its final four possessions.
One of those drives was set up by an interception by senior cornerback Bijon Samoodi, who hauled in the second of the Mustangs’ interceptions on the night after defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz deflected the pass by Northern Arizona quarterback Chase Cartwright at the line of scrimmage.
“That’s what we do as a defense,” Samoodi said. “Everybody just does their job, and when they’re called on to make plays, they make plays.
“We just take it from the standpoint where it’s our turn now. We’ve got to get the ball back for the offense. We’ve got each other’s back, and that’s what it just comes down to.”
Cal Poly took over on the Lumberjacks’ 44-yard line with 6:39 left, but Mustangs quarterback Dano Graves was stopped short on fourth-and-1 at the 35 when Northern Arizona linebacker Ryan Reardon anticipated the snap and jumped over the line for the tackle.
The Mustangs got the ball back once again after Samoodi knocked down a third-down pass by Cartwright, but after making one scrambling pass play work for a 37-yard pass to Cole Stanford, Graves was hurried by Reardon again and tossed a game-clinching interception.
Cal Poly held Northern Arizona running back Zach Bauman, the leading rusher in the Big Sky, to 91 yards on 24 carries, a 3.79-yard average.
Cartwright was just 16-for-32 passing for 177 yards, a 3-yard touchdown and the two interceptions.
But the Lumberjacks’ defensive numbers were even more impressive. Graves completed 50 percent of his passes for 115 yards and ran for 86 yards on 18 carries. Chris Nicholls rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, and Stanford had four catches for 66 yards.
“As well as our defense played, maybe they played that well, too,” Walsh said in reference to Northern Arizona’s defensive unit. “They weren’t out here trying to lose a game. They were trying to win, too. Everyone’s going to point to the kick return. It was a big play. There were other big plays, too.
“I wish I could pinpoint it, but I will not point at one part of our football team right now and say that’s what lost us the game.”
Both teams came into the matchup believing it held the importance of a playoff game. Two conference losses at this stage certainly put a team on the outside looking in at the group contending for the Big Sky championship.
As for an at-large playoff spot, Cal Poly will certainly have to win the rest of its games to avoid being left out of the expanded 24-team FCS playoff bracket, and even that might not be enough.
That’s exactly what happened to the Lumberjacks in a 42-34 loss at home to the Mustangs in the regular-season finale last year. The defeat knocked Northern Arizona out of a tie for first place, and the Lumberjacks were passed over for the playoffs as the fourth-place team in a conference with three co-champions.