GREELEY, Colo. — When it first appeared that Cal Poly fullback Akininyene Umoh might be the goat, he ended up stealing the show.
Northern Colorado and Cal Poly traded turnovers in the opening minutes of their game Saturday at Nottingham Field, where patches of snow dotted the sidelines and the temperature at kickoff was 32 degrees, but Umoh’s fumble became an afterthought when he ended up accounting for three touchdowns in Cal Poly’s 42-14 victory in the season finale for both teams.
“This is my last time in a Cal Poly uniform, and I didn’t want to go out like that,” the senior said.
“I made a decision to myself that I had to go harder than I ever have in my life.”
Northern Colorado’s first drive ended when Cal Poly (6-6, 5-3 Big Sky) junior linebacker Nick Dzunbar intercepted quarterback Seth Lobato’s pass and returned it to the Bears’ 32-yard line.
Umoh’s fumble came two plays later, but no damage was done then, or for the rest of the first quarter as the teams remained scoreless.
Umoh’s first chance at redemption came when he capped a 15-play, 90-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown catch from sophomore quarterback Chris Brown with five minutes gone in the second quarter. That drive set the Mustangs’ tempo for the game, as they converted two fourth downs on the drive, including one on their own 19-yard line.
“That’s a tough call, but in your last game and all the players want to do is win, sometimes you gotta do something that’s motivational for them,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “That first down really ignited us for the rest of the game.”
Northern Colorado (1-11, 0-8 Big Sky) went three-and-out on its next drive, and Umoh again took advantage, scoring on a 3-yard rushing touchdown his next time on the field. Umoh’s final visit to the end zone came in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard run. Umoh tallied only 50 all-purpose yards, but he made them count.
“He always plays with a lot of heart,” Brown said of Umoh, “but honestly, I knew when he fumbled he was going to come through. Those three touchdowns didn’t just happen. That’s a result of his dedication and hard work.”
Brown had an impressive game of his own, rushing 18 times for 101 yards and completing 10 of 16 passes for 129 yards.
The Mustangs took a 21-0 lead into halftime following a one-handed snag by tight end Austin Albison for a 22-yard score with 10 seconds remaining before the break. Senior defensive lineman Sullivan Grosz put his team in good position after he intercepted a tipped ball near midfield with 1:05 remaining.
“I have to give that one to the linebackers. They tipped it, and I just hustled to the ball,” said Grosz, who added six tackles and one sack. “I ended up diving for it and getting it — just right place at the right time.”
Northern Colorado got on the board with 6:46 left in the third quarter when Bears senior cornerback Courtney Hall intercepted Brown and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-7. Brown answered with a 2-yard score on the next drive, and after Northern Colorado punted on its ensuing possession, Umoh scored his last touchdown of the game and his 10th of the season.
The Bears’ only offensive touchdown came three minutes later when Lobato found senior wideout Will Jefferson Jr. for 27 yards to make the score 35-14.
Cal Poly’s Alex Hubbard concluded the game’s scoring with a 94-yard kickoff return shortly thereafter. Hubbard also had seven tackles and an interception, one of four Lobato threw in his final game as a Bear.
Hubbard was hard to bring down as a kick returner all day, and his touchdown seemed almost effortless.
“I just hit the hole, ran through it, avoided the kicker, and it was off to the races from there,” the senior said with an ear-to-ear grin.
And there certainly was reason to smile. The Mustangs end their season with a .500 record, motivation for next season, and the seniors were able to celebrate following their final game, even if it was in the coldest atmosphere many of them have ever played in.
“I didn’t wear no sleeves or any leggings, but it was fun, though,” Umoh said. “This was one of the most fun games I’ve played in my life. This win just means starting a winning streak for the guys next year.”