BROOKINGS, S.D. — The Cal Poly football team turned its playbook inside out.
The Mustangs passed early and often. They ran their option out of unfamiliar formations with offensive blockers flying from unexpected directions.
For the most part, it worked.
But it turns out Cal Poly (0-2) has more issues than a fanbase begging for some offensive fireworks.
Exciting football didn’t seem to matter as much when it didn’t result in points, and the Mustangs fell 44-18 to No. 12 South Dakota State (1-1) at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium on Saturday.
“We thought we needed to make some plays in the pass game, and I thought we made some plays in the pass game,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, “especially early on.
“The problem is we have to finish drives. If you throw it or run, it really doesn’t matter. If you don’t get it on fourth-and-1, fourth-and-4, fourth-and-3 — you’re coming away with no points and they’re scoring points — it puts a lot of pressure on you.
“I think overall, our balance was probably pretty good statistically, but you’ve got to score touchdowns to win games like this, and we didn’t do it.”
Chris Brown had a career-high passing day, going 16 of 21 for 202 yards. Cal Poly had 428 yards of total offense a week after the offense fell flat in a 265-yard losing effort at New Mexico State where only seven passes were attempted.
The biggest play Saturday was an 89-yard play-action pass to junior receiver Roland Jackson that helped set up a fourth-quarter touchdown run by Brown.
Even the rushing game appeared more creative.
Brown ran 20 times for 87 yards, junior slotback Kori Garcia had 86 yards on 17 carries and the team totaled 226 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per rush.
“Watching last week, New Mexico State, we really didn’t expect them to pass,” said South Dakota State safety Jake Gentile, who counted a sack and three tackles for loss among his eight stops.
“We knew they were going to come out and give us something we haven’t seen before. They came out in a couple different formations and pulled differently than what we’ve seen before.”
“We were in the film room for hours talking about what our jobs were, what the keys were. We knew they were going to get yards. They’re a good team. Triple option’s hard to cover, but it was making stops that we really needed to do. We came up big on a lot of third downs, fourth downs.”
Cal Poly was just five of 13 on third-down conversions and converted just one of three on fourth down.
The first fourth-down falter came at fourth-and-2 at the Jackrabbits’ 38-yard line with the Mustangs trailing 7-6 early in the second quarter.
Brown rushed up the middle and appeared close to first-down yardage, but the officials eyeballed the spot, declined to measure with the chains and awarded the ball to South Dakota State.
When the Jackrabbits took a 23-12 lead near the end of the third quarter, Cal Poly needed to respond to stay in contention. Brown guided the Mustangs to a first-and-10 at the South Dakota State 21-yard line, but the Mustangs were dropped for losses on consecutive run plays and came up 3 yards short on fourth-and-5 at the 16.
“Honestly, I felt like I had a good energy from the team,” Brown said. “On the sideline, we had a better team morale. When I was on the field, I felt the offense was rallying around each other. But we just came up short on a lot of plays and had some mistakes.
“Our team did a good job of blocking most of the time. We just have to go back and watch it, see what we have to correct.”
On the other end of the field, the Jackrabbits had 502 yards of total offense led by All-America running back Zach Zenner.
Zenner ran 30 times for 193 yards and a 15-yard touchdown and broke the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s all-time career rushing record.
Thrust into the starting lineup for the first time after last week’s fluke injury to senior Austin Sumner, South Dakota State quarterback Zach Lujan passed for 184 yards and three touchdowns in his home debut.
Trevor Wesley, Jason Scheider and Jake Wieneke had one scoring catch apiece. Reserve runner Brady Mengarelli rushed for 73 yards and a late touchdown, but the centerpiece was Zenner.
Cal Poly middle linebacker Nick Dzubnar tallied a career-high 19 tackles in pursuit of South Dakota State’s star, who seemed to get stronger as the game progressed.
Mustangs safety Dave Douglas had six tackles and his first career interception. Fellow senior safety Jordan Williams and senior linebacker Cameron Ontko had eight tackles apiece.
Sophomore defensive tackle Marcus Paige-Allen had seven stops in his second start.
“I think we did a relatively good job in the first half,” Dzubnar said. The Mustangs knew that Zenner “has a lot of accolades. We knew he was going to be a hard, tough runner. Second half for whatever reason, it seemed like some guys got out of their gaps, myself included got out of a few gaps.
Said Walsh: “With some of the zone schemes that they run, you’ve got to fill your gaps perfectly, and if you leave a seam, that guy sees it. He’s that good of a player, and then he gets his body downhill, and he’s a load. It’s not just us that he’s done it against. We knew coming in that that was probably going to be the key to the game.”