The Cal Poly football team was playing for its postseason livelihood.
All UC Davis had on the line was an oversized gold-painted metal horseshoe welded to a block of wood.
Yet, a rivalry victory over the Mustangs (6-5, 5-3 Big Sky Conference) was ample motivation for the Aggies (2-8, 1-6 Big Sky) to produce a prom-night experience near the end of their most miserable season since at least the original release of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
UC Davis stripped Cal Poly of the rivalry trophy it had held for two seasons with a surprise 48-35 victory at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday night.
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The Mustangs were hanging on for dear life after last week’s loss to Idaho State knocked Cal Poly from its perch atop the Big Sky. It’s the main reason why — after the Mustangs fell behind by 17 for the second straight game — they clawed as hard as they could to remain in striking distance in the fourth quarter.
No win, no FCS playoffs. It was as simple as that.
“That was definitely in the back of our head coming into this game,” sophomore slotback Kori Garcia said, “coming into this game that we needed to win out in order to keep our playoff hopes alive, and we knew that. That’s why we kept fighting and fighting at the end, to extend our season, but we couldn’t do it.”
Even if UC Davis wins its season finale against Sacramento State in another rivalry game next week, this year’s win total will be the lowest the Aggies have had since finishing 3-7 in 1967.
UC Davis had lost seven straight, and its only victory coming into the game was a blowout over Fort Lewis, which is only 3-8 at the NCAA Division II level.
Then came Saturday, and the Aggies looked as good or better than any of the four Big Sky title contenders Cal Poly has taken on this season.
The 48 points were a season high for the Aggies against a Division I opponent. They hadn’t scored more than 28 points in the five games leading into Saturday. UC Davis had 31 at the half.
The 48 points are also the most allowed all season by Cal Poly. The Mustangs hadn’t given up more than 30 in any of the previous five games.
Oh, and by the way, it was the first loss of the season at home.
“Tonight,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, “they proved that this game was important to them. They knocked us around pretty good. We got beat up, and guys stepped up and played hard, but the better team tonight won.”
Senior running back Gabe Manzanares had 37 carries, 230 rushing yards and three touchdowns — all career highs. Sophomore quarterback Ben Scott was 24-of-32 passing for 298 yards and three more touchdowns.
UC Davis stuffed Cal Poly on three straight quarterback keepers at the 1-yard line in a successful goal-line stand. They also took a fumble away from a Mustangs team that came into the game tied for the national lead with only six lost turnovers all season.
Showing its frustration, Cal Poly was hit with three 15-yard penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct after the whistle, and to add insult to injury, the Mustangs got the short end of the stick on a crucial third-down spot in the second half and a disputed catch that may or may not have been trapped by UC Davis receiver Keelan Doss late in the fourth quarter.
“There was frustration the entire time,” Cal Poly senior linebacker Nick Dzubnar said. “They get a big play, and they’re running past you talking trash. You can’t do anything but play the next play and then hope for the best.
“I got a personal foul throwing a dude, which isn’t good because if I lose my head, everyone thinks they can lose their head.”
Dzubnar had his third 18-tackle game of the season, which is one off his career high, and surpassed Kyle Shotwell for the single-season program record. Dzubnar now has 160 tackles with one game remaining. Shotwell had 158 tackles in 13 games in 2005.
Garcia had a team-leading 151 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. He upped his season total to 1,002 yards. Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown added 89 yards on nine carries and two touchdowns to run his season total and Big Sky quarterback rushing-record total to 1,172 yards.
This is the first time the Mustangs have had two 1,000-yard rushers since Craig Young and Antonio Warren accomplished the feat in 1997.
Cal Poly’s four rushing touchdowns also increased the team season total to 41, tying the program record and breaking the conference’s for rushing touchdowns.
None of the records above had any of the Mustangs’ attention during the game.
After falling behind 31-14 at the half, all Cal Poly was focused on was the comeback.
The Mustangs got to within 10 with a touchdown drive on the first possession of the second half, but UC Davis stretched the lead back out to 20 on two separate occasions.
When Brown hit Jordan Hines for a 33-yard touchdown pass and cut the lead to 13 points with 6:42 left in the game, hope remained that Cal Poly could still win with a couple quick scores, but UC Davis didn’t give the Mustangs much of a chance, running off 4:04 of the rest of the game and forcing Cal Poly to turn the ball over on downs to effectively end it.
“Our team, even though we were down in the beginning, we always fight back,” Garcia said. “That’s what we have; we have heart on this team. We tried to dig ourselves out of the hole, but it was too much.”