BOZEMAN, Mont. — The start of the Big Sky Conference football season offered a potential fresh start for the Cal Poly football team Saturday afternoon.
Looking to get back on track and avoid a third consecutive loss, the No. 20-ranked Mustangs fell behind by three touchdowns early and never fully recovered on the way to a 45-28 loss to 15th-ranked Montana State.
A sellout crowd of more than 19,700 filled raucous Bobcat Stadium, helping the Bobcats (2-1) end an eight-game losing streak against Cal Poly in runaway fashion. For the second week in a row, the Mustangs (1-3) were outscored 21-0 in the first quarter on a series of blown coverages and poor communication defensively.
“They’re really good on what they do offensively,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “If we’re going to say that they’re really good, then we have to play really good and on offense we have to keep up.
“They finished drives, we didn’t.”
Coming off a 50-point performance at Eastern Washington last week, the Bobcats piled up 602 yards of offense and never punted in a dominant offensive showing.
Junior quarterback Dakota Prukop completed 19 of 26 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns and added 36 yards rushing. Having rushed for nearly 200 yards against the Eagles in Cheney, Wash., Prukop seemed content to stay in the pocket and let plays develop downfield.
“We practiced everything they showed us, we just didn’t execute,” senior cornerback Karlton Dennis said. “Our eyes got out of place, we got into a hole and it’s hard coming out and being down 21-0. We did it to ourselves.”
Cal Poly ran the ball effectively against a Montana State defensive front that featured two new starters and struggled against Eastern Washington. The Mustangs rushed for 356 yards on 66 carries, good for an average of more than 5 yards per attempt.
Sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe ran for 156 yards on 27 carries — both game highs — and scored a 36-yard touchdown. Junior Kori Garcia ran the ball 18 times for 106 yards and a touchdown.
“We can definitely get it turned around,” said Garcia, who surpassed the 100-yard mark for the first time this season. “We have the people to do it here on the team.”
It was all Montana State early.
Leading 7-0 midway through the first quarter, Cal Poly looked to get its first stop as the Bobcats’ punting unit came on. But kicker Trevor Bolton executed a fake punt to the left to extend Montana State’s drive.
Bobcats head coach Rob Ash went immediately back into his bag of tricks and drew up a successful flea-flicker on the ensuing play. Prukop connected with tight end Beau Sandland on a 51-yard strike and Chad Newell scored his second touchdown moments later.
Sandland, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound transfer from Miami, caught five passes for 156 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s the stuff that’s against our base (defense) that shouldn’t result in 70-yard touchdowns,” Walsh said.
Montana State continued the torrid pace when Prukop connected with sophomore Jayshawn Gates on an 88-yard scoring strike during the first play of its next possession. The third-longest touchdown pass in Montana State history put the visitors in a 21-0 hole.
Two veteran Mustangs scored their first touchdowns of the season to help Cal Poly pull within 31-21 at halftime.
Senior wide receiver Willie Tucker pulled in a 22-yard scoring pass from Chris Brown for the 12th touchdown of his career and first since the 2013 season. Tucker started in place of Roland Jackson Jr., who did not travel with the team this week because of an injury.
Garcia, a preseason All-American and 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, scored on a 6-yard run with less than 23 seconds remaining in the first half. The ninth touchdown of Garcia’s career capped a 12-play, 65-yard scoring drive that gave the Mustangs some momentum going into halftime.
Cal Poly came out flat to start the third quarter and went three-and-out as Montana State scored 14 straight points.
Brown finished the game 6 for 15 for 50 yards and two touchdowns, the second landing in the hands of senior Jordan Hines early in the fourth quarter.
“I think we played with great effort and we made some good plays on offense,” Walsh said. “But like I said before, we had opportunities to score more points and we didn’t do it when we had to do it.
“We had to come out fast in the second half and we didn’t.”
Here is the earlier version of this story:
BOZEMAN, Mont. — Quarterback Dakota Prukop and the No. 14-ranked Montana State Bobcats sent the Cal Poly football team to its third straight loss, 45-28, on Saturday afternoon in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams at Bobcat Stadium.
Sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe and junior slotback Kori Garcia each rushed for more than 100 yards to lead the No. 20 Mustangs (1-3). Senior quarterback Chris Brown also passed for two touchdowns, one apiece to seniors Jordan Hines and Willie Tucker.
X-factor: Montana State converted on eight of its 11 third downs and was 1 for 2 on fourth downs. The Bobcats successfully ran a fake punt in the first quarter that led directly to a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. They wouldn’t line up in punt formation the rest of the game.
Cal Poly eventually got within 10 points, but the fake punt proved to be the catalyst to Montana State’s 21-point first quarter.
Player of the game: Coming off his 529-yard performance at Eastern Washington last week, Prukop was stellar again Saturday afternoon.
He completed 19 of 26 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He developed a successful connection with senior tight end Beau Sandland, who caught five passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Sandland consistently got behind the Cal Poly defense on slow-developing routes, including a 63-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
What it means: The Mustangs’ eight-game winning streak against the Bobcats came to an end. Since beating Montana on a last-second field goal Sept. 5, Cal Poly has lost three straight games by at least two touchdowns.
Up next: Cal Poly returns to Alex G. Spanos Stadium next Saturday when the Mustangs host Idaho State in their second Big Sky game of the season.
The Bengals defeated Cal Poly 30-28 last season in Pocatello, Idaho. That loss snapped a five-game winning streak by the Mustangs and a loss the following week at home to UC Davis ended Cal Poly’s hopes of making the FCS playoffs.