Cal Poly football coach Tim Walsh called Saturday’s 21-14 nonconference home win over South Dakota State one for the ages — but not because of its fortuitous ending.
The Mustangs (2-2) got a clutch fumble recovery for a touchdown in the final minutes, and safety Scottie Cordier sealed the win with his team-leading third interception of the season only moments later.
Linebacker Marty Mohamed, the player whose sack forced the fumble, was named Great West Football Conference Defensive Player of the Week on Sunday.
What made the game much more significant to Walsh, however, was how well the team played in spite of a mounting number of significant injuries.
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“I’ve been coaching for 32 years,” Walsh said. “That’s the most courageous win I’ve ever coached because we were hurting.”
Offensive linemen Art Munoz and Jason Cox, both third-year starters, were each ruled out for the season prior to last week’s game against San Jose State, and running back Jon Hall was coming off a minor knee surgery.
That much the team already knew, but what they didn’t foresee for were injuries to three more starters and bumps and bruises for others along the way.
UCLA transfer Dominique Johnson left the game with a first-quarter shoulder injury after catching four passes for 31 yards. By halftime, the junior receiver had his arm in a sling.
Walsh said Johnson, who leads the team with 15 catches for 197 yards, is day to day and could possibly return for this Saturday’s game at Montana, which will be broadcast on CW 5 at noon and rebroadcast on KSBY at 7 p.m.
Running back Jono Grayson, second on the team with 176 rushing yards and a touchdown, strained a leg muscle and received only limited action after running for 22 yards on four carries against the Jackrabbits.
Senior cornerback Xavier Gardner, a second-year starter in the defensive backfield, was also hurt, and Walsh said he and Grayson are both day to day.
“There might be a lot of guys that don’t practice on Tuesday, but they’ll play,” Walsh said. “We’ll just be cautious with them in practice.”
Wash said he’s taking a more cautious route with Hall, who had arthroscopic surgery to repair a meniscus tear.
Hall had 73 yards rushing and 58 receiving with one touchdown in two games before going out. A valuable dual threat, Hall won’t be allowed to play until he is fully healed.
The earliest Hall could come back “would be this week,” Walsh said, “but I think that’s extremely unlikely. When we get him back, we want him back.”
Fullback Jordan Yocum, the team’s leading rusher with 226 yards on 49 carries, missed all of last week’s game at San Jose State with a bruised hip, but played all of Saturday’s game outside of the final kneel down.
In the absence of the injured players, unheralded backups have had the chance to contribute.
True freshman tackle Giovanni Sani will be starting his third game against Montana, and true freshman cornerback Bijon Samoodi could get the first start of his career for Gardner after cementing himself as the primary nickel back.
At running back, converted wide receiver David Mahr has rushed for 22 yards and a touchdown and is second on the team with six receptions for 63 yards.
After Johnson went down against South Dakota State, receiver Eric Gardley caught a 38-yard pass to set up the Mustangs’ only offensive touchdown of the night, a 2-yard run by Mahr.
In all of the minor injury shuffling, redshirt freshman running back Kelvin Rutledge got the first action of his career against the Jackrabbits, ran three times for 33 yards and had a 20-yard scamper to help keep a late-game drive alive.
“These guys that are playing are getting more repetitions, which is giving them game experience and is only going to make them better in the long run,” Walsh said.
But for the health of the Mustangs’ playoff hopes, improvement will have to accompany more scoring. Cal Poly has still only scored two offensive touchdowns in the past three games.
“I have nothing but great things to say about the guys that did play,” Walsh said, ”but we’re going to have to score more points than we did (Saturday) to beat teams like Montana.”