As of Saturday morning, Bobby Zalud was not going to play.
Suffering back spasms, the Cal Poly football kicker was going to follow up his heroics from last week’s victory over Wyoming by spending a rivalry game with UC Davis on the bench.
“He planted on Thursday and went down,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said after a 28-20 victory over the Aggies in the Big Sky Conference opener at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. “He just planted on his left foot and his back spasmed up, and if you’ve ever had that before, it’s extremely painful.”
There was talk of Zalud going to the hospital Thursday, though that trip never came to fruition.
Never miss a local story.
During pregame warm-ups Saturday, the Arkansas State transfer tested his back, tested his leg and told Walsh he’d be able to give it a go.
Zalud joined the team with the unenviable task of replacing James Langford’s big boot. A prized recruit when he came to campus, Langford transferred to Cal in the offseason and is currently sitting out in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.
Zalud had been perfect on place kicks through the first two games, including three field goals and a 51-yarder that proved to be the winning score in a 24-22 victory at Wyoming last week.
When sophomore punter Paul Hundley was ruled ineligible in fall camp, Zalud also inherited punting duties, something he hadn’t done since his high school days at Carlsbad La Costa Canyon.
His career-long 62-yard punt set up the go-ahead score against the Cowboys and helped ignite a Cal Poly offense that went quiet after a 14-0 lead turned into a 15-14 deficit.
So, coaches and spectators had come to expect perfection from Zalud, and Walsh wanted to know if the junior’s ability to play matched up with his ability to live up to the standards he’d set for himself.
“I said, ‘Are you Bobby Zalud or not Bobby Zalud?’ ” Walsh said. “In other words, are you going to make the kicks that Bobby Zalud makes easily or not?”
It turned out not.
Zalud missed a 28-yarder that would have been Cal Poly’s first points after UC Davis opened the game with a field goal of its own.
As the clock wound down at the end of the first half, Zalud missed from 30 yards, preventing the Mustangs from taking a 10-point lead into the break.
“I don’t want to blame it on the injury,” Walsh said, “but I’m sure in the back of his mind he was worrying about whether he could swing it or not.”
Walsh said Zalud got the call over redshirt freshman backup Stephen Pyle because Zalud looked good in pregame warm-ups.
Zalud was healthy enough to go four for four on PATs and punt six times for a 40.5-yard average. He had crucial third-quarter punts downed at the UC Davis 6- and 3-yard line.
“He’ll be sore again,” Walsh said, “but hopefully, he’ll get right and he’ll learn from this deal.
“Think about all the punts he made. He backed them up with punting, and if he didn’t play, I don’t know if that would have happened. For every bad, there’s a good. And he battled through it.”