The Cal Poly football team passed like it hadn’t all season on Saturday.
And for a triple-option team that seemed to be reaching into an empty bag every other time it needed a double-digit comeback this season, it was shocking. Where was the same passing attack the Mustangs displayed in a 50-48 loss at home to South Dakota on Saturday when the team needed it in Great West Conference road losses to UC Davis and North Dakota?
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said the success through the air had more than a little something to do with having faced a Coyotes team that is allowing more than 280 passing yards per game on defense, numbers that would rank South Dakota in the bottom three nationally in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“Like that?” Walsh said. “I doubt we could have been that successful” against other teams. “We’re not going to be a team that really wants to throw as many times as we had to throw tonight. We could have lined up tonight and ran our offense, too, but I don’t think we could have kept up with them like that.”
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Wide receiver Dominique Johnson had career highs with 13 receptions for 273 yards and his five touchdowns broke Ramses Barden’s single-game school record by one. Quarterback Tony Smith was 24 for 38 for 273 yards, all career highs, and his six touchdown passes tied Jonathan Dally’s program record.
Johnson even shared the Big West Football Conference Player of the Week Award with South Dakota quarterback Noah Shepard, who threw five touchdown passes to five different players and ran for two more.
Despite Shepard’s 26-for-37 passing performance, his 413 passing yards and 62 rushing yards — Cal Poly (4-6, 1-3 Great West) still nearly pulled off an improbable comeback in a game where the Mustangs trailed by 22 points thee separate times in the second half.
Cal Poly was just one two-point conversion short of sending the game into overtime, and the onside kick the Mustangs recovered with 18 seconds left at their own 48-yard line proved just too far away for Smith to have a real shot at converting a Hail Mary.
The loss handed Cal Poly a couple of infamous distinctions.
The Mustangs were assured their first losing season since going 3-8 in 2002 and were locked into last place in the Great West just one year after winning it by running through the league undefeated with three blowout victories.
Plenty has changed this season. Barden and several other offensive starters are gone, and the coaching staff has turned over almost entirely from top to bottom.
A switch from the former regime’s flex defense to the 4-3 also helped to complicate things, and despite realistically remaining in the playoff hunt into late October, the Mustangs are coming off of three straight losses.
All that remains in this season is this upcoming Saturday’s nonconference game at Weber State, but Cal Poly will have no chance to move up in the Great West standings even with a win.
After Saturday’s loss, however, Walsh was not lamenting the difference between fourth and fifth in the conference.
“To me, what good is second, third or fourth?” Walsh said. “We didn’t win it. You can look at it a lot of different ways, but we didn’t win the conference either and neither did they.
“I’m not pleased with it, and I think we’re going to have to deal with it, but that’s life, and you’re going to have to pick yourself up sometimes when you get knocked down. We’re knocked down, and we’re going to pick ourselves up.”