GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Up was down and vice versa, yet everything was just like normal.
As oxymoronic as that sounds, all that matters is that it led to a 31-17 loss for the Cal Poly football team in its Great West Football Conference road game at North Dakota on Saturday.
And with that, out the window goes the Mustangs’ hopes of a Football Championship Subdivision at-large playoff berth.
Now the explanation: For one thing, Cal Poly lost another road game.
If it wasn’t predictable considering the opposition — a transitioning Football Championship Subdivision team with a loss to an NAIA opponent — it was easily foreseen by some pretty unflattering trends.
The No. 18 Mustangs (4-4, 1-1 GWFC) are 0-4 away from home, 0-4 on artificial turf and have lost their past three road games after leading at halftime.
“It was like the same old thing,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “It kind of reminded me a lot of the Montana game. We’ve played four away games and three of them we’ve been ahead at halftime. And lost, and that’s on us. We have to find ways down the road to play better in the second half.”
To a Mustangs fan, it must read like the script from a Halloween horror movie they’ve seen before.
Perhaps in the Halloween spirit, North Dakota fans on the other hand either got an early start on their trick or treating or perhaps had just given up on their team.
The school had been averaging more than 9,000 people per game this season, but the announced attendance of 6,711 was the smallest regular-season crowd in the history of the indoor Alerus Center, which opened in 2001.
Realistically, they didn’t have much reason to expect this kind of a performance by the Fighting Sioux (4-4, 2-1 GWFC), especially against the highest ranked FCS opponent to ever set foot in the building.
Cal Poly even kept the smaller crowd quiet by taking a 10-0 lead to start the second quarter, and the Mustangs looked so dominant, Walsh later lamented the fact that the lead wasn’t bigger.
Here’s where you find out how things got weird.
Not even the North Dakota fans that did show up could have predicted how their team would stay in the game, and that being the case, Cal Poly was even more surprised.
North Dakota quarterback Jake Landry, averaging just 1.7 yards per carry coming in, kept the Mustangs off balance with his legs, rather than his arm.
Landry kept it close with a 28-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter and scrambled to 92 rushing yards on 15 attempts, all but exclusively in the first half.
His running ability changed the complexion of the game because Cal Poly had to slow down its speed rushers to make sure they weren’t giving Landry a highway to run through.
“By him using his legs, he found an open seam and he would take off pretty quick,” Mustangs senior defensive lineman Ryan Shotwell said. “We haven’t really seen that before.
“We’d seen on the film that he tried to make a lot of plays, but we didn’t expect that at all.”
That opened up opportunities for Fighting Sioux running back Mitch Sutton, who had 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and receiver Ismael Bamba, who had seven catches for 104 yards after going without a reception in the first half.
Landry’s legs were just as unexpected as Cal Poly’s inability to run.
Jono Grayson had 27 yards on four carries and had another long run called back on an illegal chop block, but the rest of the team combined to average just 1.3 yards per rush.
The Mustangs ranked 10th in the FCS in rushing with more than 206 yards per game coming in but totaled just 62 rushing yards Saturday.
Cal Poly quarterback Tony Smith instead passed a season-high 27 times and tied a season best with 13 completions. With 203 yards, Smith had two touchdowns to running back Jon Hall but also threw two interceptions while trying to rally the Mustangs in the final four minutes.
Receiver Dominique Johnson had six catches for 121 yards, and a 60-yard catch-and-run he had on a screen pass in the first quarter helped encouraged the Mustangs to throw the ball early.
“Coming into the game, we had a pretty good idea we wanted to get the ball in space,” Smith said. “We put in some more formations to get some guys in space. That play to Dominique was obviously a big-time play early in the game. We got some momentum there, and at some point, it just tapered off.”
But after North Dakota took a 21-17 lead less than midway through the third quarter and added a field goal early in the fourth, passing was no longer a choice for Cal Poly.
The Mustangs needed to score at least a touchdown by that point, and by design, the triple option running game is not the speediest down the field.
“We’re not built to comeback,” Smith said. “They got ahead and we got into the catch-up mode and that’s not something that we’re used to. All these passing downs, it gets tough obviously, because we’re not designed to do that stuff.”