Highlights of Cal Poly's first-round playoff loss to San Diego
History wasn’t on San Diego’s side entering Saturday night’s first-round FCS playoff matchup against No. 21-ranked Cal Poly.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter that the Toreros had lost all five meetings in the series by an average of nearly four touchdowns, or that no team from the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League had ever won a playoff game.
San Diego overcame all of that and more on the way to a 35-21 victory over the Mustangs in front of a sparse crowd at rain-soaked Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“They deserve all the credit,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “They totally outplayed us tonight.”
The Pioneer Football League champion Toreros (10-1) won their ninth consecutive game and defeated the Mustangs for the first time in program history. Cal Poly lost three of its final four games to finish the season 7-5 overall.
San Diego’s reward for ending a five-game losing streak against the Mustangs — and securing the PFL’s first-ever playoff victory — is a second-round matchup with No. 1 seed and five-time defending national champion North Dakota State next Saturday in Fargo.
“We’ve always had great respect for Cal Poly,” San Diego coach Dale Lindsey said. “If you don’t bring your A-game, they do. And luckily for us we brought our A-game today.”
A San Diego defense that allowed the fewest points the FCS during the regular season certainly lived up to that billing. The Toreros held the No. 1 rushing attack in the country to a season-low 155 yards rushing on 48 carries, an average of 3.2 per attempt.
San Diego out-gained Cal Poly 473 to 195 in total offense, held a nearly 8-minute advantage in time of possession and forced three fumbles in the victory. Mustangs’ fullback Joe Protheroe rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns, marking his eighth 100-yard game this season.
“They play extremely hard as a football team and they’re extremely well coached,” Walsh said. “I have nothing but respect for what they accomplished, even when we’ve beaten them.”
Trailing 28-14 midway through the fourth quarter, defensive end Kelly Shepard, a fifth-year senior from Arroyo Grande, intercepted an Anthony Lawrence pass at the line of scrimmage and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown.
Cal Poly’s first defensive touchdown since 2012 pulled the Mustangs within 28-21 with 8:07 remaining.
But the Toreros answered right back when senior running back Jonah Hodges scored his third rushing touchdown of the game to bring the score to its final margin. Hodges rushed for a game-high 171 yards on 35 carries.
“It was rough out there,” Hodges said. “I think their defense had a hard time cutting.”
Trailing 14-7 to start the third quarter, freshman wide receiver J.J. Koski returning the second-half kickoff 85 yards to the San Diego 7-yard line. Protheroe scored his second rushing touchdown of the game and 13th of the year on the next play.
When little was going right for the Mustangs in the first half, freshman safety Kitu Humphrey provided a timely spark with his first career interception. Eight plays later, Protheroe scored a 7-yard touchdown run to cut Cal Poly’s deficit to 14-7 going into halftime.
“We’ve been coming up here for four or five years and getting our tail whipped,” Lindsey said. “We always have played well for three quarters, we never played the fourth quarter. I think our kids played very solid, evenly throughout the game.”