For the Cal Poly football players who were around last season, Saturday’s game with North Dakota was following a familiar script.
It was a year ago when the Fighting Sioux flip-flopped a halftime Cal Poly lead to upset the Mustangs in Grand Forks, N.D., and sent their season into a tailspin.
Right down to the back-to-the-wall playoff hopes, the situation echoed this season. But this time, No. 23 Cal Poly came back for a 22-21 victory Saturday in Tony Smith’s first game back at quarterback in six weeks.
“It felt similar, and we even said stuff in the locker room,” said Smith, who started in place of injured sophomore Andre Broadous. “I especially made it vocal that remember last year and remember this team isn’t going to give up. I think the key to this year is that we didn’t give up.
“Not to say that we gave up last year, but we played with some heart and some passion down the stretch, made some big plays and did what it takes to win, and I credit some of that to being at home and playing in front of this crowd as well.”
The Mustangs (5-3, 1-1 Great West Conference) were playing in San Luis Obispo for the first time since the last time Smith took snaps, a 35-33 win over then-No. 1 Montana on Sept. 11, and an announced 10,220 showed up to see Cal Poly’s return from a program record five-game road swing.
Smith capped a game-opening, 8-minute, 52-second drive with a 4-yard touchdown run, running back Mark Rodgers added touchdown runs of 42 and 2 yards and the Mustangs’ defense tightened up when it had to by keeping the Fighting Sioux scoreless on their first three and their final five possessions of the game.
North Dakota (2-5, 0-3 Great West) scored on a flurry of big plays in the middle of the game. Receiver Greg Hardin had touchdown catches of 43 and 25 yards, and Josh Murray capped the Fighting Sioux scoring with a 5-yard touchdown run. But the Cal Poly defense came up with six sacks and a key fumble recovery to help seal the win.
“If you really take about five or six plays away,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said, “they didn’t do a whole lot on offense. It’s just unfortunate that we gave up the big plays.”
North Dakota gained only 73 total yards on 18 plays in the first half, converting only two first downs but after a missed extra point and a blown coverage against play action led to Hardin’s first touchdown, the halftime lead for Cal Poly was only six.
“Unfortunately, when you hold a team to 13 plays in a half and dominate the half and only are ahead 13 to 7,” Walsh said, “you put yourself in a situation where they’re able to hang around.”
Cal Poly took the lead for good on Rodgers’ 2-yard run with 10:57 left in the fourth quarter. The West Virginia transfer finished with a game-high 94 yards on 17 carries, and Mustangs fullback Jordan Yocum gained 58 yards, combining with fullback Jake Romanelli to rush for 107 yards on 24 attempts.
Rodgers said there was very little adjustment to make going from Broadous, who had started the past four games, and Smith, who started the first two after playing every game last season.
The difference was probably more important to the Fighting Sioux defense.
“Tony comes in and we just stay on the same page,” Rodgers said. “That’s who I was working with mostly during camp and the first couple weeks.
“Tony, he’s kind of fast, too. It’s not like he’s that much slower than Dre, but Dre is faster. So, the defense would probably worry more about Dre.”
Smith was 12 of 16 passing for 80 yards and a touchdown. He ran eight times for minus-4 yards.
Smith lost his starting job when he went down with an injury for the second straight game in the win over Montana. He was cleared to practice three weeks later, but Broadous had taken hold of the job by then.
Things changed when Broadous was sacked hard on the Mustangs’ final play from scrimmage in last week’s 20-7 loss at Southern Utah. Smith spent the week practicing with the first team.
“Ever since I was cleared to practice coming back,” Smith said, “I had to be ready to play every week. I knew my number was called this week, so there’s a little bit more intensity and focus in preparation. It was the same preparation as always, but it’s nice to know when your number is called.”