The Cal Poly football team looked well on its way to getting the blowout win most thought the Mustangs needed to help them make a jump in the polls in pursuit of an at-large playoff berth.
But while the Mustangs kept putting up second-half touchdowns against St. Francis (Pa.), the feisty Red Flash (1-7) wouldn’t let the score get out of hand, gashing the Cal Poly defense for a season high in yardage.
The No. 22 Mustangs settled for the 41-33 win Saturday in front of a homecoming crowd of 7,132 that included many survivors of the plane crash that killed 16 players in Toledo, Ohio, in 1960.
Cal Poly (6-3) won’t find out whether that was enough of a spread to satisfy the playoff selection panel until the end of the regular season — and only if they win the next two games, starting with next week’s road trip to South Dakota.
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“I feel like we are” a playoff team, Mustangs receiver Dominique Johnson said, “but I also understand that we have to play better.”
The offense had one of its best outputs of the season.
Cal Poly senior fullback Jordan Yocum scored a career-high three touchdowns, junior fullback Jake Romanelli added two more, and Johnson had a season-high eight catches for 115 yards and a score.
“We would score, and I would feel like, ‘OK, we got a handle on it,’ ” Johnson said, “and then they would come right back. We understood as an offense that we just had to keep scoring as long as they kept scoring and just try to make the most of our opportunities.”
Making his second straight start in place of sophomore Andre Broadous, senior quarterback Tony Smith also had a season-high 231 yards passing, but Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh was more concerned with a defense that allowed 242 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air to a team that was only averaging 14.9 points and 219 yards of total offense per game.
St. Francis totaled a season-high 373 yards, and despite falling behind 27-12 early in the third quarter were within eight points before failing to secure an onside kick with 1:17 left in the game.
“Defensively, our worst performance of the year probably,” Walsh said, “and penalties, not good. Just things that good teams shouldn’t do.
“Give them a lot of credit, but tonight I don’t think we played well on defense. I think that was more the problem than anything else, and I think they executed their offense because we allowed them to.”
Cal Poly will need victories over South Dakota and UC Davis to close out the season to get the strongly suggested seven Division I victories to become eligible for an at-large berth.
The Great West Conference does not qualify for an automatic bid, but even if it did, Southern Utah clinched its first conference title Saturday with a 55-24 win over UC Davis.
Even if the Mustangs do win out, there’s a debate as to whether they’ll be awarded a playoff spot in the 20-team bracket, but St. Francis coach Chris Villarrial, a former All-Pro offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, said he could see Cal Poly going far in the postseason.
“Cal Poly’s a great fundamentally coached team and they’re going to go far,” Villarrial said.
“I think they are a playoff team. We played Liberty, and not taking anything away from Liberty, but this team is a lot faster, more physical than Liberty is. This team’s very disciplined, and I think they have a great chance to go far in the playoffs.”
Red Flash quarterback John Kelly was 26-of-41 passing for 242 yards and had touchdown strikes of 1, 10 and 23 yards. He kept a number of plays alive by scrambling in the pocket, either stepping up and away from potential sackers to complete a pass or by rolling out to the sidelines for a gain.
Kelly rushed 13 times for 71 yards, and the Mustangs defense was held without a sack for the first time all season.
The defensive line rotation was without defensive end Gavin Cooper, who is tied for the team sacks lead with three this season. Cooper was dressed on the sideline, but did not play, Walsh said, because he missed practice this week to catch up on academics.
Cooper’s presence was missed, but for a deep defensive line, whose entire rotation has been praised in recent weeks, that was no excuse for allowing Kelly to dictate the game.
It didn’t help that junior cornerback Asa Jackson left the game in the second quarter with a hip flexor and did not return after the half.
“One guy doesn’t make the difference,” Walsh said. “I refuse to believe in that kind of stuff. Gavin’s a good player, but he’s not the difference of whether we win the game by 30 points or not tonight.
“We got to live up to the billing we’re giving those guys. We need to play a little bit more passionate and put a little bit more pressure on the quarterback, and I don’t think we did that tonight.”