VERMILLION, S.D. — An interception that went for a touchdown, several long passing plays, a couple big returns, a 14-0 lead in the first half — the University of South Dakota enjoyed all these things Saturday against Cal Poly (7-3, 2-1 Great West Conference) and it didn’t appear to bother the Mustangs one darn bit.
It didn’t bother Cal Poly tailback Mark Rodgers, you can be sure of that. The Mustangs’ leading ballcarrier went for 235 yards on 15 carries with second-half touchdown runs of 44 and 74 yards, quieting a DakotaDome crowd of 7,369 with a pair of mortal wounds dealt to the home team in a 38-24 Mustang victory.
Cal Poly goes into the last week of the regular season against rival UC Davis with a 7-3 record, three consecutive wins and a fresh character-building victory in the rearview mirror.
“Our guys showed a lot of resiliency,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “Coaches live through their players — we can’t play any more — and I thought the second, third and fourth quarters we played with a lot of heart. That was pleasing for the coaching staff to watch.”
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It was certainly pleasing watching Rodgers dice up the Coyotes. The Mustangs, trailing for much of the game, used his 74-yard touchdown run with 13:06 to play to take a 31-24 lead, permanently changing the momentum of the game.
“Weekend after weekend, we keep going 1-0,” Rodgers said. “Now we have to get ready for Davis — be happy with this win but think about getting ready for next week.”
Rodgers had 45 yards at halftime, getting loose for 190 more in the second half as the Mustangs, after weathering a strong start from South Dakota, wore down the hosts with a steady diet of Jordan Yocum up the middle and Rodgers everywhere else.
“We’re a little more difficult to defend this year with the shotgun,” Walsh said. “We’re able to get Rodgers into space better. We can snap it to him, we can put him in space where he can do some things with the football.”
The Coyotes came out roaring with Dante Warren hitting Will Powell on 31- and 17-yard touchdowns in the first 16 minutes as South Dakota (4-6, 1-3 Great West) rolled to a 14-0 lead, but Cal Poly won the rest of the game by a score of 38-10.
“It was a game of big plays on offense, defense and special teams —- there were big plays all over the place,” said South Dakota coach Ed Meierkort, whose Coyotes are in their third year of a reclassification process to full FCS-level eligibility. “And they made a couple more than we did.”
And as Meierkort would later point out, when the Mustangs got a big play it meant points. For the Coyotes, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
Rodgers’ first long score, a 44-yarder, tied the score at 17 with 8:19 to play in the third quarter. The Coyotes then squandered a 55-yard Jeremy Blount punt return when the Mustangs’ Nico Molino picked off a pass at the Cal Poly 10 on South Dakota’s first play from scrimmage.
Quarterback Tony Smith, who completed just two passes against the Coyotes, was then picked off by Dametrius Turner, who went 40 yards for a score to give the Coyotes the lead again.
It didn’t last long, though. Before the third quarter ended, the Mustangs had tied it up once more, going 77 yards in 2:57, ending the drive with a 2-yard Jake Romanelli score. Less than two minutes later, Rodgers burst through the middle and went 74 yards for his second TD to make it 31-24.
“That offensive line did quite a job today, they were really pushing those guys off the ball,” Romanelli said. “They opened up some huge holes for myself and for Mark. Obviously he had a pretty big day.”
The Coyotes answered Rodgers’ sprint with a 78-yard return that gave South Dakota the ball on the Cal Poly 22.
After three plays that lost a total of 11 yards, Kevin Robb missed a 50-yard field goal attempt. It typified how the Mustangs were operating after a tough first quarter. When things started getting a little loud, they hit the mute button.
The Mustangs’ ensuing eight-play, 68-yard scoring drive, which ended with an Eric Gardley 3-yard run, buried any further South Dakota comeback prospects and sent the Mustangs into next week on a roll.
“We challenge our guys to do it the Poly way,” Walsh said. “The Poly way is to stay together regardless of what happens. We were down 14-nothing and our guys stayed together and played together — and now — won together.”