Last year, Andrew Gardner’s last-minute, off-mark field goal capped a 30-28 Cal Poly football loss to Montana the second week of the season.
That game was more than just foreshadowing what was in store for Gardner in the regular season finale at Wisconsin, where he went on to miss three extra points in an overtime defeat.
It was the Mustangs’ 11th loss to the Grizzlies in the past 12 games and made what has been a close-contested series as of late continue to appear as lopsided as possible.
Three of the past five Cal Poly-Montana meetings have been decided by a total of six points, making every scoring opportunity for each team crucial.
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For parity like that to continue in today’s noon matchup between the No. 15 Mustangs (2-2) and the No. 4 Grizzlies (4-0), Cal Poly will likely have to do something it failed to do last season — win the special teams battle.
“It could turn the tide one way or the other, no question,” said Mustangs defensive backs coach Adam Waugh, also the team’s special teams coordinator. “So, hopefully, we can make the plays to turn the game and not give up the big plays.”
Last season wasn’t all Gardner’s fault. Outside of his final foible, Montana also set up its first touchdown of the game with a blocked punt.
Special teams have continued to be a concern this season.
The Mustangs have missed four kicks in four games, leaving a total of 10 points out on the field.
Cal Poly also ranks 107th in the Football Championship Subdivision in kickoff returns, averaging fewer than 17 yards per return. Aside from a 54-yard punt return he had against San Jose State, Asa Jackson has averaged just 4 yards per punt return.
“I think we have good return people and good specialists,” Waugh said. “The guys that are getting the ball have some talent. We need to do a much better job of blocking up front for them.”
Of the four kicks that have been missed, three of them were blocked — including two by a San Jose State program that hadn’t blocked a kick or punt in nearly five years.
The Mustangs have had a punt blocked this season, too.
“Most of the issues we’ve had have just been fundamental breakdowns,” Waugh said, “guys not being in the right place or blocking the right person or things like that. So hopefully with practice time we’ve corrected those issues.”
There were no blocks against South Dakota State last week, and Cal Poly actually went a long way in winning the game when punter Harlan Prather pinned the Jackrabbits at their own 5-yard line late in the game.
“I don’t know that we have all the answers yet,” Waugh said, “but I think the kids are doing a nice job of working at things. I think they understand what we’re trying to accomplish with our schemes.”