After putting up just three points following a big first-quarter touchdown and being shut out in the second half for the second week in a row, the Cal Poly offense shouldered plenty of the responsibility for Saturday’s 23-10 football loss at UC Davis.
But the game turned on three separate Mustangs fourth downs, two of which went sour on special teams. There was a sack on an attempted fourth-down conversion, a false start at the 2-yard line that led to a missed field goal and a fake punt on fourth and long that came up 3 yards short.
Had the three plays gone the Mustangs’ way, Cal Poly (4-5, 1-2 Great West Football Conference) might be playing for its second straight conference title this weekend.
Instead, the Aggies (5-4, 2-1 Great West) will play North Dakota (5-4, 2-1 Great West) with the winner holding the Great West title outright, while Cal Poly will host South Dakota (4-5, 1-2 Great West) in a matchup to see who will occupy last place.
Once again, Cal Poly had a halftime lead on the road only to watch it evaporate in the season half. It’s happened on each of the past four road trips and drops the Mustangs’ road record to 0-5 this season.
The past two in particular, including last week’s 31-17 loss at North Dakota, have come with Cal Poly kicking itself for not extending its lead early in the game.
Two of those opportunities Saturday came after the Mustangs were handed solid field position. After UC Davis was able to negate a 42-yard opening-drive touchdown run by Cal Poly fullback Jake Romanelli with an equalizing 22-yard touchdown pass from Greg Denham to tight end Brad Bispo on the following drive, the Mustangs looked poised to score again.
Jono Grayson, who’s best kickoff return this season has been for 34 yards, returned the ensuing kickoff 32 yards, and Cal Poly actually started with the ball on the Aggies 47 after a personal foul penalty.
Four plays later on fourth-and-3 at the UC Davis 40, Cal Poly quarterback Tony Smith dropped back to pass, but as soon as he looked to throw, Smith was swallowed up on a dual sack by Jacob Maxon and Brock Butler for a 6-yard loss, killing a potential scoring drive.
Undaunted, the Mustangs stopped the UC Davis offense and followed that up with a 13-play, 77-yard drive that started at their own 2.
Kicker Chris Pinto finished that possession off with a 38-yard field goal with 9:28 left in the second quarter.
Cal Poly then looked poised to score once more when Xavier Gardner picked off Denham at the UC Davis 40-yard line just two plays into the next drive, but this ideal field position would once again be stunted by a fourth-down blunder.
The Mustangs rushed to the line to go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the Aggies 2-yard line but proved to be in too big of a hurry as the play was flagged for a false start.
Moved back five yards, Cal Poly had to settle for a field goal attempt, which Pinto missed from the wide left hash 23 yards out.
The stalling of those two drives alone could have given the Mustangs as much as a double-digit lead going into the half instead of the 10-7 advantage they settled for.
The third missed opportunity on fourth down signified the end of Cal Poly’s lead.
With the Mustangs nearing midfield on their first drive of the third quarter, Harlan Prather shanked a punt at his own 44-yard line but was given a second chance to kick after dueling personal fouls canceled each other out.
On his second opportunity on fourth-and 12, Prather tried to run for the first down but gained just 9 yards on a sprint up the far sideline.
The Aggies took over at their own 47 and began the first of two consecutive field-goal drives to snatch the lead.