In his biggest moment to date as the Cal Poly football coach, it looked like Tim Walsh was going conservative.
But really, with the game on the line in the final minutes of a 21-14 win over No. 16 South Dakota State, Walsh was merely trading one aggressive call for another Saturday.
Instead of going for a fourth down conversion with hopes of breaking a tie that had stood since before halftime, Walsh decided to give the ball back to the Jackrabbits (3-1) with more than two minutes left in the game.
The Monday morning quarterbacks were laying in wait, but Walsh went with the unit that showed more scoring punch — his defense — and ended up looking like a genius.
“We have lot of faith in what we do,” Walsh said. “We believe in pressure. It might be a different pressure than they played before in the past, but the players have bought into it and players make plays.”
The payoff came when defensive coordinator Greg Lupfer called a massive blitz with South Dakota State backed up at its own 4-yard line, and the defense manufactured its second touchdown of the game.
Linebacker Marty Mohamed got his second sack of the game, forcing South Dakota State backup quarterback Thomas O’Brien to fumble backward into his own end zone, and Carlton Gillespie jumped on the ball for the winning score for the No. 19 Mustangs (2-2).
“The ball fell out, and I didn’t even realize it was on the ground until I got up and saw we had a touchdown,” said Mohamed, who had a game-high 13 tackles. “I just thought I had another sack.”
The blitz made Jackrabbits head coach John Steigelmeier’s move to drop back and pass with a redshirt freshman who’d already thrown one interception look riskier than Walsh’s punt.
The Cal Poly offense actually lined up for the fourth-and-4 at the South Dakota State 33-yard line with 2:24 left, but after a change of heart, Walsh called a late timeout and sent his punt unit out to the field.
“I wasn’t really thinking we’d get 6 yards on the play we called,” Walsh said, “and Harlan Prather’s a great punter. We’re getting the ball stuck inside the 10-yard line. And the second half, our defense the second half played pretty darn good.”
O’Brien, who threw another interception to Scottie Cordier on the South Dakota State’s last-ditch drive, was only in after senior Ryan Crawford went down with a knee injury in the first half.
With the Jackrabbits leading 14-7 late in the first half, O’Brien was intercepted on a tipped ball by Cal Poly sophomore cornerback Asa Jackson, who returned it 47 yards and tied the score 14-14.
It was a breakthrough play for Jackson, who is the returning Great West Conference newcomer of the year but had been picked on by opposing offenses for a few big plays this season.
“For me, that’s a play that I gotta make,” Jackson said. “For this team and this defense, that’s something I expect myself to do. Did it somewhat get the monkey off my back? Yeah, I’m not going to lie. It did.
“It’s something that I need to keep doing and our defense needs to keep doing to win games.”
The Mustangs offense continued to struggle putting points on the board, especially after leading receiver Dominique Johnson left the game with an undisclosed shoulder injury in the second quarter.
Cal Poly scored just one offensive touchdown for the second straight week. The Mustangs also had just one offensive score at San Jose State last week and were shut out of the end zone offensively two weeks ago at Ohio.
Going against a first-team defense that hadn’t allowed one offensive touchdown all season and had given up only one offensive touchdown otherwise, the goal was to cash in on its opportunities.
But after the first half, Cal Poly’s best chance to score as an offense ended when kicker Chris Pinto was short on a 38-yard field goal attempt with 1:27 left in the third quarter.
Mustangs quarterback Tony Smith was 13 of 24 for 131 yards and an interception, but many of his remaining weapons were taken away.
Already without running back Jon Hall, Smith lost Johnson — the only receiver with more than two catches coming into the game, and running back Jono Grayson pulled a leg muscle, too.
Grayson finished with just four carries for 22 yards. Jaymes Thierry led the Mustangs with 57 rushing yards, and running back David Mahr was the team’s top receiver with five catches for 35 yards.
Injuries or not, Cal Poly goes into a road showdown with nonconference foe Montana next week still in an offensive funk.