Of the 18 seniors who played their final game at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday, Tony Smith might have had the least enviable task.
He followed triple-option whiz Jonathan Dally in the line of Cal Poly quarterbacks — only without the same cavalcade of superstars.
He fought to keep his job playing in front of a fanbase that appeared more interested in finding out what every other quarterback on the roster could do.
Not the only one to blame for the Mustangs’ 4-7 season in 2009 or for their playoff bubble-busting collapse in Saturday’s 22-21 loss to UC Davis — his mistakes were the most visible and harped upon.
But Smith walked away from the field with only praise for his tumultuous two-year experience leading the Cal Poly offense.
“The best thing is getting to line up with the guys I get to line up with every day,” Smith said. “I love my teammates. Those guys motivate me. Through all the different scenarios that have played out through my four years here, my teammates have always stuck by me.
“I don’t know if there’s too many disappointing things besides losing football games, and unfortunately, tonight we lost.”
Disappointment was the theme of the night after the Mustangs came into the game needing a win to qualify for the postseason.
Smith and the offense staked Cal Poly to a 21-0 lead with some of the best football they’ve played all season to start the game, then let down the team in the second half with five turnovers.
After a pass that went for 72 yards to senior receiver Dominique Johnson in the first half, Smith threw an ill-advised interception in the second and misfired on a pitch to junior Mark Rodgers for a lost fumble.
His final play came running out of bounds short of the sticks on fourth down while trying to rally the team in the final seconds. He’d like his legacy to be about more than that.
“I put my heart and soul into this thing,” Smith said. “I trained my butt off. These guys trained their butts off. Just to be a guy who put it all out there. I did try my best.”
As the Aggies struck for the go-ahead score in the final 35 seconds, it seemed to negate all of the progress the Mustangs had made in their second season under head coach Tim Walsh, flip-flopping their record to 7-4 in a season where a brutal five-game road trip dominated the headlines.
It definitely was not the way the underclassmen wanted to send out a group of leaders who had remade Cal Poly back into a winning team.
“Just to lose to Davis, a rival, in that fashion is unreal,” junior fullback Jake Romanelli said. “But the seniors had a heck of a season. They turned the program around, and they changed the culture. That was their senior goal, and they accomplished that.”
Aspirations of winning the Great West Conference went unfulfilled. The Mustangs will have one more chance to do it next season before joining the Big Sky Conference in 2012.
If making the playoffs and taking back the trophy in the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe were goals two and three, Cal Poly came up short on those, too.
The team was also badly beset by injuries.
Smith went down with a neck injury after the second game, playing behind an offensive line that was down to a fourth-string tackle at one point. His backup, Andre Broadous, started the year with an ankle injury and did not play in the final four games after hurting his shoulder.
The Mustangs had three backups playing along the offensive line, including true freshman Lefi Letuligasenoa at guard, and on defense, coaches were forced to pull Vante Johnson and David Douglas from their redshirt seasons because of injuries to six other defensive backs.
“In hindsight, when we sit down and we talk about it and actually look at the players in the team meeting on Tuesday,” Walsh said, “I think that we’ll have a lot of good things to say about what they accomplished, especially when you look at how beat up we were at certain positions.”
Said Smith: “To say that we accomplished everything we wanted to and we achieved all of our goals would be foolish to say. To say that we didn’t do anything good would be foolish to say, too. It’s a 7-4 season, and it’s one win short of a playoffs.”