BROOKINGS, S.D. — Tim Walsh was living a little dangerously, and in a closer game, it could have cost the Cal Poly football team.
For the first time in his 23-year history as a head coach, Walsh said, he decided to bring just one kicker to Saturday’s 44-18 road loss to No. 12 South Dakota State.
That kicker, junior Stephen Pyle, was charged with all kicking and punting duties.
On a first-quarter PAT, Pyle’s kick bounced off the left upright, no good, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Walsh said Pyle felt something in his hip flexor. Pyle made one more kickoff, and that was the end of his night.
Kicking teams were in scramble mode the rest of the game.
The Mustangs went for two-point conversions following the rest of their touchdowns, failing twice.
Senior slotback Chris Nicholls punted four times, averaging 36.5 yards with a long of 42 and showing some impressive hangtime for a player who doesn’t practice kicking all that much.
Sophomore slotback Elias Stokes handled the remaining two kickoffs, squibbing the ball and giving South Dakota State drives that started at the 36- and 28-yard lines.
As for field goals, Cal Poly did turn the ball over on downs to end an early fourth-quarter drive at the Jackrabbits’ 18-yard-line, but by that point, the Mustangs were too desperate to settle for three points at a time.
In the end, Pyle’s injury might not have made a big difference, and with a week off to heal before the next game, he could be right back in the lineup for the Sept. 20 home opener against Portland State.
“It could have been a disaster,” Walsh said, “but in reality, the way the game turned out, he’ll get better, and he’ll get healthy and be back for Portland State.”
The same is hoped of junior cornerback Chris Fletcher, who suffered a leg injury later in the game.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Fletcher was tracking an off-target pass from South Dakota State quarterback Zach Lujan, looking for his second interception of the season. Instead, Jackrabbits receiver Jake Wieneke stole it away for a 26-yard gain, and Fletcher hit the grass hard.
Fletcher sprang up quickly but immediately fell down on the ground, where he was attended to by athletic trainers before being helped, limping off the field.
Further tests are expected today, but the expectation is that Fletcher suffered a bone bruise, rather than a fracture or ligament tear, injuries that could keep him out of action for a much more significant amount of time.
Cal Poly can ill afford to lose any more defensive backs, an area that has already been hit hard by attrition just two weeks into the season.
Sophomore safety B.J. Nard suffered a season-ending knee injury last fall and is still working his way back to full strength. True freshman safety Jonathan LaBonty was second on the depth chart before being injured last week and could be out for an extended period.
Additionally, two of the five players charged in connection with an alleged attempted armed robbery last month were former FBS transfers competing for immediate playing time at cornerback. They remain suspended indefinitely.
The program appears to be operating without the assumption the suspended players will return this season, or at all.
For the secondary and kicking games, this week’s bye seems to come at an ideal time.
“It’s definitely much-needed,” Walsh said. “We’ve got to get healthy, number one, and number two, we’ve got to get better.”