When the Cal Poly football team reviews the film of its home-opening loss to No. 9-ranked Northern Iowa this week, the Mustangs will likely lament some uncharacteristic miscues defensively, poor run blocking on the perimeter and two missed opportunities in the red zone.
With the seventh sellout crowd in the nine-year history of Alex G. Spanos Stadium on hand Saturday night, 17th-ranked Cal Poly was outplayed early for the first time in three games this season.
By the time the second half started and the Mustangs were looking up at a 28-7 deficit, the once impressive environment was gone and the stands were half full.
Credit the visiting Panthers, one of five teams from the Missouri Valley Conference to qualify for the FCS playoffs last fall, for taking the energy out of the venue. Northern Iowa ran through the Mustangs defense on three straight possessions in the first quarter to build a three-touchdown lead and the visitors were never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
“If you don’t line up right you give yourself zero chance,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “If you pass rush a quarterback that can run and you get deeper than he is in the pocket, you give him a great lane to run in.
“Our fundamental football tonight was poor. I wish I could say something different.”
With junior quarterback Aaron Bailey in control of the offense, Northern Iowa cemented its status as a top-10 team in the FCS and a legitimate challenger to four-time defending national champion North Dakota State in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Bailey passed for 218 yards and two touchdowns, and the transfer from Illinois scored twice more running the ball. He showed why 15th-year head coach Mark Farley picked him as the starter over senior incumbent Sawyer Kollmorgen with his size, athleticism and knack for making defenders miss.
Walsh and the Cal Poly players were quick to deflect credit from the 6-foot-2, 228-pound Bailey, instead pointing to their own lapses on defense that opened up running and passing lanes.
“With us having a lack of communication and there being open voids in the defense,” said junior safety B.J. Nard, who led the Mustangs with nine tackles, “I mean, any quarterback can look great when we’re not doing our jobs.”
Despite to slow start, Cal Poly finished Saturday’s contest with 350 rushing yards on 67 attempts, an average of 5.2 yards per carry. More than half of that total came from fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Brown, who surpassed the 100-yard mark for the ninth time in his career.
Brown carried the ball 26 times for 184 yards, both season highs, and scored two touchdowns. He had six runs longer than 12 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Brown also completed 12 of 21 passes for 77 yards — all season highs — and was intercepted twice and fumbled once.
“We weren’t getting a lot of push and their guys played really physical,” said Brown, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry. “They won on certain downs that we needed to get, so it was just a matter of them playing extremely physical. Not to say that our guys weren’t, they just won tonight.”
Trailing by three touchdowns to start the second half, Cal Poly put together a 13-play, 67-yard drive that took more than four minutes off the clock. It was all for naught after Brown was stopped on fourth-and-1 at the Northern Iowa 10-yard line.
The Mustangs drove inside the Panthers’ 20-yard line on the ensuing possession less than a minute later. But Brown’s fourth-down pass in the flat to reserve running back Alex Suchesk fell incomplete for another turnover on downs.
“If we scored both possessions in the third quarter when we’re down there it might be a little different game,” Walsh said. “But we come away with nothing and that’s not who we are.”
Brown echoes Walsh’s sentiment.
“When we get in the red zone we’ve got to finish,” he said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on.
“We get down here, if it’s pound it or in the air, we’ve got to finish.”