Coming into Saturday’s game 0-2 in the Great West Conference, Southern Utah (3-4 overall) could only blame its propensity of falling behind early for its troubles this season.
The Thunderbirds have watched opponents take opening leads in five straight games, including falling behind by two touchdowns or more in conference losses to North Dakota and South Dakota.
Cal Poly (3-3, 1-0 Great West) had the chance to take the opening possession and continue Southern Utah’s streak of falling behind, but after winning the pregame coin flip, the Mustangs deferred their decision to kick or receive to the second half.
That allowed the Thunderbirds offense to set the tone, and they took advantage of it.
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Helped by James Langford’s kickoff out of bounds, Southern Utah went 60 yards in six plays to score on a 1-yard run by Deckar Alexander and took a 7-0 lead to start the game. It was the Thunderbirds’ first game-opening score since their season opener.
The drive took only 2 minutes, 49 seconds, and instead it was Cal Poly — with an offense that has struggled playing from behind — in the early hole.
The Mustangs responded with a 33-yard field goal by Langford, but Southern Utah took a 14-3 lead when quarterback Brad Sorensen led Southern Utah on an eight-play, 73-yard drive capped by a 14-yard touchdown pass to Darrell Brown.
Cal Poly received the ball to open the second half trailing 17-10.
Rushing game slowed early
Southern Utah employs an unconventional approach to defending Cal Poly’s triple option.
The Thunderbirds bench their normal starting defensive tackles and replaces them with two smaller players inside to match up against the Mustangs’ smaller and quicker offensive linemen.
Defensive end Eddie Mailoto (5-foot-11, 247 pounds) and fullback Lavell Ika (5-7, 235) played the nose and tackle positions, respectively, in Southern Utah’s four-man defensive line, and it helped slow Cal Poly’s running game early on.
The Thunderbirds came into the game giving up nearly 4.5 yards per carry, so it appeared to be a favorable matchup for the Mustangs’ rushing game, which ranked fifth in the FCS coming in.
But on 15 carries in the first quarter, Cal Poly collected only 39 yards, averaging 2.6 yards per carry.
The Mustangs needed two fourth-and-1 conversions just to sustain its first drive into the red zone. But the possession stalled at the Southern Utah 15-yard line, and Cal Poly settled for Langford’s field goal.
Rodgers goes down momentarily
Cal Poly’s offensive gameplan became clear early on. The Mustangs wanted to pound the Thunderbirds with their potent run game, but the plan was altered early.
After taking the Mustangs’ first play from scrimmage for a 2-yard run, senior slotback Mark Rodgers ran for 4 yards to the left side.Rodgers took a monster hit and lay still on the grass when the play wrapped up.
Trainers rushed to Rodgers, and after a couple of minutes, he ran off the field under his own power.
He did not appear to limp or favor any limbs, and after being replaced by junior Deonte Williams for a possession, Rodgers returned the game no worse for the wear.
He finished the first half with 16 rushing yards on six carries.