POCATELLO, Idaho — With all else pretty much equal, it was the Cal Poly football team’s greatest strength that let the Mustangs down.
Having just entered the national polls and positioning itself atop the Big Sky Conference for the first time, No. 21 Cal Poly saw it all fall apart in a 30-28 loss at Idaho State on Saturday.
The culprit: Failed fourth-down conversions.
The Mustangs, who ranked fourth among 121 FCS teams on fourth down, had been converting 72.7 percent of the time — with short-yardage situations being their bread and butter.
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At the Bengals’ Holt Arena on Saturday, the yardage hardly mattered. The Mustangs were 1 for 5 on fourth down.
The game ended when Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown scrambled for just 4 yards on fourth-and-10 from near midfield in the final minute. But the Mustangs fell short on two fourth downs from 1 yard. A 1-yard gain on a fourth-and-5 near midfield that led to an Idaho State field goal to make it 23-14 midway through the third quarter especially stung.
Compounding matters, the Bengals were 3 for 3 on fourth down, including a 34-yard pass up the sideline from Justin Arias to Madison Mangum on fourth-and-2 from the Idaho State 41-yard line to set up the clinching score with six minutes left.
The Bengals beat the Mustangs at their own game.
“We went for it,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “We’ve lived by it and we’ve died by it, I guess. And we’re not dead yet, but in that particular game, our inability to make fourth downs probably cost us. Hindsight is 20-20. Fourth-and-5, I probably should have kicked it. But that’s hindsight. We don’t get it, and everybody goes, ‘What a nut. I can’t believe it.’ ”
Mangum had 10 catches for 159 yards, including that game-winning 24-yard touchdown pass, and every grab he had carried some weight. Arias, the leading passer in the nation, was 22-of-40 passing for 292 yards and three touchdowns. The Mustangs intercepted him twice and nearly grabbed two more, but neither turnover led to a score.
Idaho State running back Xavier Finney, the Big Sky’s leading rusher, ran for 125 yards on 26 carries but didn’t score and is still tied for the program single-season record with 14 rushing touchdowns.
Cal Poly’s defense did well to hold the Bengals off the scoreboard. Idaho State came into the game averaging 41 points, which ranked eighth in the country. The Mustangs forced the Bengals to take three field goals.
Despite never taking the lead, Cal Poly also nearly erased a 17-0 first-half deficit, too.
The catalyst was Mustangs quarterback Chris Brown, who accounted for 296 yards of total offense and four touchdowns.
Brown ran 39 times for 195 yards and three scores to increase his season rushing total to 1,148 yards, setting the Big Sky single-season record for quarterbacks.
He also passed for 101 yards on 8 for 22 attempts, including a touchdown on a 44-yard screen pass to Kyle Lewis that made it 17-14 early in the third quarter.
Brown sported a bloody cut on his throwing hand after the game. He even walked off the field injured after one failed conversion but came back into the game on the ensuing drive.
As every rush on the inch-thick turf of the indoor arena took its toll, Brown got up slower and slower, but fatigue didn’t stop him from racing away from everyone for a 33-yard touchdown run that made it 23-21 late in the third quarter.
Brown said simply after the game: “I just happened to come up with the touchdown right then, which was needed.”
“Some people have exceptional competitive nature,” Walsh said. “Even when he’s fatigued and he’s down, he picks himself up, and he plays at a really high level. He had to be exhausted. Maybe we did go to the well one too many times with him, but how proud can you be of the guy the way he played?”
The loss was a crushing one for Cal Poly, considering what was at stake and how far the Mustangs have come.
The Mustangs are a couple choice plays away from being 7-0 in the Big Sky with their two losses including a last-minute defeat at Northern Arizona in the Big Sky opener. Cal Poly is now on the outside looking up at four one-loss teams above it in the conference standings.
And don’t expect the Mustangs to save face with poll voters, either.
Few expected Cal Poly to be atop the conference after having five key players, including returning offensive MVP slotback Kristaan Ivory, arrested and charged with attempted armed robbery for an incident during training camp.
Even fewer expected a turnaround from a 1-3 record to start the season.
The fact that Cal Poly made a contender out of itself is a point of pride, but it also makes Brown consider the loss extremely disappointing.
“We’ve been rest in peace twice this year already,” Walsh said. “The incident. And 1-3 start. And then 17-0 midway through the second quarter. Then all of a sudden, they’re resurrected again.
“Who said this was going to be easy? Nothing’s been easy this year for us. What’s one more struggle? Let’s dig ourselves back in the game.”
Said Brown: “It’s mostly just frustrating and sad because our guys wanted it so bad. Going into this week and these past 6-to-8 games, the fight that they showed throughout the games is something I know for myself keeps me motivated to play as hard as I can and as smart as I can.”