Tony Smith couldn’t remember whether the hit came before or after his helmet popped off.
The Cal Poly senior quarterback’s recollection of the tackle that rang his bell and bolted it to the sideline in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 23-17 season-opening win over Humboldt State was a little fuzzy after the game.
But the memory of Smith’s career-high 48-yard touchdown run — one that helped him move into the hero category when all signs were pointing toward another — was fresh in his mind.
Smith’s touchdown scamper with 1:32 left in the third quarter gave the Mustangs their first lead of the game after they were outplayed early and went into the half trailing 17-7.
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Prior to the play, Smith had been charged with a fumble and an interception and a fumbled handoff from him went for a touchdown the other way.
“The tension was rising on the sidelines,” Smith said. “You could feel the pressure build, and we wanted so badly to do well. We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot. A lot of that has to do with me. I take responsibility for the fumble and the interception.
“We needed a big play. I saw a crease, I took it, got some good blocks downfield and was able to make a touchdown.”
Other than a standout performance by West Virginia transfer Mark Rodgers and solid running by junior fullback Jake Romanelli, who had 81 yards on 12 carries, the Mustangs might want to forget a lot of Saturday’s close call with the Division II Lumberjacks.
Rodgers, who began practice about two weeks late as he gained academic eligibility, scored on a 7-yard swing pass from Smith to start the second quarter and ran another in from 4 yards out in the third.
He finished with 105 yards on 14 carries and added a 49-yard kickoff return.
“He was electrifying,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, “pretty close to breaking a couple of kick returns. He’s an electric player, and we need more guys to step up like that and be playmakers, and when that happens, then we’ll really be solid.”
Without leading receiver Dominique Johnson, who was sitting out because of an NCAA ruling on his redshirt eligibility, the Mustangs amassed only 39 yards through the air.
The Cal Poly offense was outgained at the half by Humboldt State 195-107.
Walsh called the effort sluggish both offensively and defensively, and perhaps it had something to do with reputation.
Not including a 2002 loss to transitioning school UC Davis, the Mustangs had gone 7-0 against Division II teams since they lost to Western Washington in 2001, a team coached by current Lumberjacks coach Rob Smith.
“All along I said they would be well prepared and well coached,” Walsh said, “and they were well prepared and well coached. I respected our opponent going in, and maybe our players didn’t give enough attention to that.”
Said Rob Smith: “No one gave us much of a chance, but our kids were very loose all week and very loose on the trip, so we’re disappointed.
“I said all along that I don’t think Cal Poly expected the type of football team we were.”
Humboldt State took the early lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Mike Proulx to receiver Dirk Dallas with 2:02 left in the first quarter.
After Cal Poly responded with the swing pass to Rodgers, Lumberjacks kicker Matt Bruder trickled a 40-yard field goal just over the crossbar to give his team a 10-7 lead.
With Cal Poly looking to rally late in the second quarter, Humboldt State turned the tables when Jonathan Faraimo picked up a ball that Mustangs receiver Eric Gardley dropped on an end around and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
Walsh said the fumble wasn’t Smith’s fault, but a quarterback often takes the heat. It’s one reason the 48-yard touchdown run was such sweet redemption.
“For him to do some things really well in the second half was pleasing for me to see, for our offense and for Tony as well,” Walsh said.
“Good teams when things are going bad, they’ve got to find a way to win a football game and we found a way to win a football game. I think that’s a big positive going into next week.”