LAS CRUCES, N.M. — According to at least one sports betting agency, the Cal Poly football team came into Thursday’s season-opening 28-10 loss at New Mexico State favored to win by a touchdown.
Even without the five players who were charged in an alleged attempted armed robbery and a few more starters sitting with injuries, the Mustangs looked ready to take an early lead on the Aggies. Then some costly mistakes stalled their progress.
A turnover, a defensive penalty and a holding call against Cal Poly all helped New Mexico State to a 14-10 lead at the half.
With the score tied at 7 in the second quarter, Cal Poly’s option was chugging along. The Mustangs had run 19 times for 103 yards, and the Aggies had particular difficulty stopping Cal Poly slotbacks on the option pitch to the outside.
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But with the Mustangs marching into New Mexico State territory, Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown went to the air looking for slotback Chris Nicholls streaking over the middle. Brown, however, overthrew Nicholls by a few steps, and New Mexico State cornerback Winston Rose let the ball come right to him for an easy interception, returning it to the New Mexico State 32-yard line.
On the ensuing possession, Cal Poly cornerback Karlton Dennis was caught holding a receiver on second-and-goal at the 2-yard line. That gave the Aggies a fresh first down at the 1, and Xavier Hall punched in a touchdown run on the very next play.
As Cal Poly was driving in search of the equalizer on the next possession, Brown took a shotgun snap on third-and-8 near midfield, dropped back to see the defense part and sprinted 40 yards up the middle to the 11.
But right guard Billy Shipman, making the start as an injury replacement, was called for a holding penalty that negated the gain and effectively killed the drive.
YOUNG ENDS MAKE IMMEDIATE IMPACT
Offseason hip surgeries had a pair of Cal Poly senior defensive ends still hobbling coming into the season. As it turned out, the Mustangs had to leave both Jake Irwin and Chris Judge back in San Luis Obispo, and it opened the door for two sophomores to make their first start.
Kelly Shepard, a former walk-on from Arroyo Grande High, and Josh Letuligasenoa, the second of three Letuligasenoa brothers to play at Cal Poly, didn’t have long before they were each tested.
Shepard made the game’s first tackle, taking down Aggies running back Larry Rose III on the first play from scrimmage after Mustangs kicker Stephen Pyle opened the game with a touchback.
Later on the same drive, Letuligasenoa nearly sacked New Mexico State quarterback Tyler Rogers and got credit for a tackle for loss when Rogers took off to run and slipped.
At the end of the first half, Shepard and Letuligasenoa were tied for the team lead with five tackles apiece. Letuligasenoa had 1.5 tackles for loss.
Junior defensive end Logan Mayes, a transfer from Washington State, got into the act as well, bringing Rose down on a third-down screen play deep in Aggies territory to help set up the scoring drive that ended with a 24-yard field-goal by Pyle with 20 seconds left in the half.
RUN, RUN, RUN
With receiver Willie Tucker still recovering from a knee injury suffered last year, Cal Poly starts the season without a proven pass-catching threat.
And outside of blocking, Mustangs receivers did not see much action. The Mustangs attempted just two passes in the first half. One was a 2-yard catch by junior receiver Roland Jackson. The other was the interception by Brown, who also turned a couple more pass drops into scrambles for big gains, even though the 40-yard run was brought back by Shipman’s holding penalty.