Though they ultimately left Hornet Stadium disappointed after a 35-29 loss that wrecked a perfect season, Cal Poly football fans occupied the visitor sections at Sacramento State’s home stadium last Saturday unlike any other fanbase this season.
With more than a dozen players and an assistant coach with strong Sacramento ties, Cal Poly brought a boisterous group of supporters that was riled up most by one of the local products.
“I was just real excited to play at home to be honest,” Mustangs sophomore receiver Willie Tucker said. “That was just the biggest game I was looking forward to. I wanted to show Sac State that we should be beating them.”
Though the Hornets came away with a victory that kept them alive for an FCS playoff spot, Tucker might have had the most memorable play of the night.
The Sacramento native and graduate of nearby El Dorado Hills Oak Ridge High had a 44-yard catch-and-run where he caught the ball near the left sideline, broke a tackle, found a diagonal lane through the defense, ran all the way across the field to the right and broke two more tackles before scoring a desperation fourth-quarter touchdown.
With 2:10 left, the big play gave Cal Poly (7-1, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) a chance to keep its undefeated streak alive with an onside kick.
The onside attempt failed, Sacramento State got a first down to run out the clock and the No. 16 Mustangs go into Saturday’s road game at No. 11 Eastern Washington (6-2, 5-1 Big Sky) looking to get back on track.
But Tucker’s play was an encouraging sign for the future of an offense that ranks 117th among 120 FCS teams in passing yards per game.
“I told our team on Monday that that was, in my 30-something years of coaching, one of the more competitive plays made by a guy,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “He could have very easily been tackled at the 35, the 20, the 10, the 5. He willed himself a touchdown, willed our team a touchdown.”
And that was Tucker trying “not to do too much.”
“Anytime I get the ball, I make the most out of it I can,” Tucker said. “I don’t try to do too much because that’s when you start fumbling or dropping the ball. So just knowing once I get the ball secured, tuck it, and then whatever I can get after the catch I can get, but don’t try to do too much with it.”
As the Mustangs have relied mainly on their 323.4 rushing yards per game, the third-highest total in the FCS, Tucker hasn’t had many opportunities to catch passes. But when he does touch the ball, he’s taken it in for six almost 30 percent of the time.
Tucker hasn’t had more than three catches in a game, but he has scored a touchdown in each of the past four, most of them coming on long-yardage plays.
There was the 44-yard supreme effort against Sacramento State, but he also caught passes of 34 and 45 yards and scored on an 11-yard pass. He leads the team with14 catches.
Walsh is dedicated to the run-first mentality of the offense, and he was just as excited about Tucker’s “domination” of the opposing cornerback he faced in Sacramento while blocking the edge for the running backs.
“When he does get the ball, we do expect him to play like that,” Walsh said. “He’s been a good playmaker for both years he’s been here. Does that mean he’s going to get the ball 10 times a game right now? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know.
“But it does mean we have a lot of confidence in what Willie can do. He’s an excellent football player, and that’s why we brought him here.”
When Tucker committed to the Mustangs in 2010, he was coming off an astounding senior season at Oak Ridge. Leading the CIF-Sac-Joaquin Section in receiving yards per game, he caught 55 passes for 1,257 yards (22.9 per catch) and 14 touchdowns.
His single-season school records for yards and yards per catch surpassed the previous marks held by players who each went on to careers in the NFL. Those two receivers — Austin Collie of the Indianapolis Colts and Seyi Ajirotutu of the San Diego Chargers — went to FBS schools.
Tucker turned down a scholarship offer from Nevada after a landmark 13-1 season by the Wolf Pack to join Cal Poly.
And despite not seeing the ball in the air much, the fit in San Luis Obispo is perfect for his personality. He seems unlikely to be caught demanding the ball anytime soon.
“Everyone’s kind of the same here,” Tucker said. “We just want to win. We’ll buy into the play. We don’t really care if it’s a run or pass. We’re just trying to get that victory. That’s what matters to us the most.”