SACRAMENTO — Usually, Andre Broadous is accounting for the winning touchdown.
Sullivan Grosz is bursting through the opposing offensive line for a sack or snatching a game-changing fumble recovery.
Cal Poly football head coach Tim Walsh is talking about how his undefeated team pulled away in the fourth quarter.
But the Mustangs (7-1, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) are undefeated no more after a flat 35-29 loss at Sacramento State on Saturday, where uncharacteristic penalties and turnovers doomed them against a Hornets team playing at the top of its game.
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“It was really frustrating for us,” Broadous said. “We had a lot of mental mistakes. We had a lot of penalties that hurt us. It’s definitely one of those games where we definitely hurt ourselves a lot.”
Aded Grosz: “Undefeated, that was a great feeling. We held onto that. We were proud of that, but now we’ve got to keep going, and we’ve got to continue to win and win out. So finishing 10-1, I think that’s the attitude we’re going to have.”
Cal Poly senior running back and Sacramento product Deonte Williams had his seventh 100-yard rushing game of the season. Highlighted by a 76-yard run to the 1-yard line, Williams finished with 168 yards on 22 carries but missed much of the fourth quarter with leg cramps.
Broadous ran for two touchdowns to pull within six of tying the all-time career program lead. He passed for another score, an impressive 44-yard catch and run by Willie Tucker to pull within a touchdown with 2:10 left in the game.
But Broadous and the Mustangs fumbled three times, losing two of them at crucial moments, and instead of watching him lead the game-winning drive in the final eight minutes, the defense of Sacramento State (6-3, 4-2 Big Sky) sacked Broadous on second and third down to force a Cal Poly punt that led to the game-clinching score.
Hornets quarterback Garrett Safron was 31 of 38 for 303 passing yards and four touchdowns. Only the yardage total was not a career-high for the sophomore and former walk-on from Santa Monica.
The heartbreaker for the Mustangs was a 32-yard touchdown pass from Safron to Morris Norrise to push the lead to 35-23 with 3:09 left in the game. Norrise had seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns, both game-highs.
After the Tucker score, Cal Poly had two chances at the onside kick. Sacramento State was offside on the first attempt, which did not travel the requisite 10 yards, and cleanly recovered the second.
The Hornets got the one first down they needed and ran out the clock from there.
“It’s unfortunate we didn’t come out of here with a win,” Walsh said, “because I think it was a winnable game, but being honest, we probably didn’t play well enough to win.”
Cal Poly was flagged for 55 yards worth of penalties in the first half alone and finished with 10 penalties for 95 yards.
Grosz, recently voted the most dominant defensive player in the Big Sky in an online poll by the conference, was hit with three personal foul penalties, including a roughing the passer and facemask.
With Sacramento State fighting to remain eligible for the playoffs as well as honoring a player who died in the hospital last week, the game was sure to be emotional.
Grosz said with everything at stake, the intense competition remained respectful. The penalties, he said, were just the result of hard play, not ill will.
“It was a big night for them,” Grosz said, “and we had to respect that. They had a player pass away, which is a horrible thing to happen. So they were playing with some emotion and we had to counter that.”
The Mustangs also had to counter it with a couple more injuries. Cornerback Vante Smith-Johnson left after the first play from scrimmage with an apparent head injury.
Redshirt freshman Chris Fletcher played the rest of the game. Though it won’t go down as his first career start, it’s as close as he could’ve come.
Fullback Brandon Howe, playing for injured starter Akaninyene Umoh, got hurt and was replaced by Matt Rulon, who ran for 47 yards on nine second-half carries.
It was also the first start for former Atascadero High standout Weston Walker, who played right tackle since Mike Freeman and Karl Winkelman have been lost to injury.
“Weston’s going to learn a lot from having the opportunity to play in a game,” Walsh said. “It’s the first game he’s really played in meaningful time since he was a senior in high school, and Chris Fletcher, the same thing. I think both those guys did some good things. They’ll learn a lot from being out there.
Losing “probably doesn’t help,” Walsh said, “but it doesn’t kill us either. Eastern Washington lost today. Northern Arizona got taken to the ropes. If we win a few more football games, we can play at the end of the year tied for the conference championship and see what happens.”