As long as the Cal Poly football team had to marinate in last week’s loss on an 11-hour bus ride home from Northern Arizona afterward, the Mustangs didn’t have to wait long to atone for the last-minute loss to the Lumberjacks.
As the storyline to Saturday’s game against visiting Southern Utah began to resemble the previous week’s loss, Cal Poly (2-3, 1-1 Big Sky Conference) consciously made sure to avoid a repeat heartbreaker by seizing a 42-39 victory at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“You know it was going to come down to someone,” Mustangs senior linebacker Nick Dzubnar said. “I’m pretty sure everyone had the taste of last week in their mouths, and I don’t think they wanted that to happen again. If it did, I would be pretty disappointed. A lot of people had that on their minds. A lot of people were vocal. A lot of people were keeping their attitudes up and the energy up, which I think is huge.”
Despite blowing all of a 21-0 first-quarter lead, Dzubnar and the Mustangs made a key fourth-quarter stop, and the Cal Poly offense churned yardage on its final possession to prevent the Thunderbirds (1-5, 1-1 Big Sky) from getting the opportunity for a last-gasp winning score.
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After a 1-yard touchdown run by Southern Utah quarterback Ammon Olsen and a two-point conversion pass cut the Mustangs’ lead to three points, Cal Poly took over at its own 28-yard line with 3:26 left in the game.
A single first down on a late possession at Northern Arizona would have won the Mustangs last week’s game, and that time, they went three-and-out.
This time, Cal Poly got not one but three first downs and marched all the way to first-and-goal at the Southern Utah 9-yard line, where Mustangs quarterback Chris Brown took a knee to kill the clock.
Included in his career-highs with 28 carries and 133 yards, Cal Poly senior fullback Brandon Howe had a 14-yard run on the final drive that helped put the game away. Chris Nicholls had the 9-yard run for a first down after the Thunderbirds had exhausted their final timeout.
“To get the first downs that we needed is a situation like that was good for the confidence of our offense,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said, “and it was good for our defenses to make at least one or two stops that helped us win the game.”
Cal Poly’s defense created two turnovers, a first-quarter fumble recovery by senior defensive end Chris Judge and a fourth-quarter interception by senior safety Jordan Williams.
The biggest defensive stop came on a third-and-14 for Southern Utah at the Cal Poly 14-yard line with the Mustangs leading 35-31 early in the fourth quarter.
Dzubnar pressured Olsen and took him down for no gain to force a 38-yard field goal attempt for the Thunderbirds. Trevor McGirr missed wide, Cal Poly took over and drove 79 yards in seven plays as sophomore slotback Kori Garcia capped it off with a 5-yard touchdown run.
“Attitude had a lot to do with it,” said Dzubnar, who had a game-high 15 tackles, including two for loss and a sack. “Last week, we got beat on a couple big plays, and guys probably dropped their heads a little bit. Out here, they have a big play, a big pass, we’re able to step up and hold them to a field goal, and they missed the field goal.”
Southern Utah had plenty of big plays.
Olsen was 29-of-43 passing for 402 yards and three touchdowns as the Thunderbirds racked up 504 yards of total offense.
But Cal Poly countered with a third straight solid offensive performance of its own.
Brown passed for 141 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 110 yards and another score. Garcia ran for 97 yards and a touchdown. Jordan Hines had two catches for 43 yards and a touchdown.
The Mustangs had 593 yards of total offense and scored 35 or more points for the third game in a row after averaging just 14 in the first two.
“We’ve really gotten comfortable with ourselves at the beginning of the year,” Howe said. “We had to have some people step up due to injury and certain incidents. So, we had people step up, and now we’ve kind of matured as a unit. The trust factor has really set in.”