MISSOULA, Mont. — The Cal Poly football team is coming home with another road loss and another injury to add to a gruesome list.
The No. 15 Mustangs (2-3), now 0-3 on the road, gambled and lost with the blitz, and quarterback Tony Smith was hurt early with a thigh bruise in a 35-23 loss to No. 4 Montana, where the temperature Saturday was measured in the teens at kickoff.
Already with two starting offensive linemen out for the season, running back Jon Hall gone for at least another week and leading receiver Dominique Johnson out for an undetermined amount of time — all with injuries — Smith was a tough loss for an already ailing offense.
Smith took a helmet to his thigh on the end of an option keeper during Cal Poly’s second drive of the game and limped along for the next two quarters. The Mustangs went to backup Andre Broadous briefly and then to Harlan Prather permanently in the fourth quarter.
Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said he hopes Smith can be back for next week’s Great West Football Conference opener at home against South Dakota.
“I’m sure Tony’s going to work his tail off to make sure he gets back,” Walsh said. “If not, Harlan and Andre will both take equal amounts of reps, and we’ll make a decision later on in the week.”
Losing its junior quarterback was a blow, but Cal Poly still had the lead and had never trailed going into the fourth quarter after Montana (5-0) turned the ball over five times.
But the Grizzlies stayed in the game emotionally with touchdown passes of 36, 68 and 83 yards against a Mustangs defense that was committed to blitzing.
“We saw a lot of blitz,” Montana receiver Marc Mariani said. “They were coming after us. They were coming after our quarterbacks, which left quite a bit of man on the outside.”
It was Mariani with the daggers. He had six catches for 200 yards and scored on the two longest pass plays against man-to-man coverage.
The 68-yarder, which came up the far sideline against Mustangs cornerback Asa Jackson on a badly underthrown ball, happened with 9:03 left in the fourth quarter, gave the Grizzlies a 28-17 lead and signaled the beginning of the end for Cal Poly.
“Under-thrown deep ball is the hardest ball to guard in college football, especially on that late touchdown,” said Jackson, who also came up with a diving interception earlier in the game, his second pick of the season. “I was in perfect coverage. If it was a good throw and it’s not 30-mile-per-hour winds, I’m all over it. But (it) came up short, I didn’t make the play and he did.”
Mariani’s 84-yard touchdown was actually Montana’s first first down of the game, and it didn’t come until almost midway through the second quarter, but it cut Cal Poly’s lead to 10-7.
Smith started the scoring with a 1-yard sneak that capped a 10-play, 83-yard drive. Cal Poly kicker Chris Pinto then hit a 32-yard field goal with the wind at his back, and fullback Jordan Yocum, who had 24 carries for 119 yards, had another 1-yard touchdown run.
The Mustangs still settled for a 17-14 lead after Grizzlies quarterback Andrew Selle flipped a screen pass over a wave of oncoming pass rushers and running back Chase Reynolds ran 36 yards unobstructed for a touchdown with just 28 seconds left in the half.
“When they get something to go their way, they feed off of it,” Walsh said, “and those two touchdowns they scored in the first half probably weren’t the prettiest touchdowns Montana ever scored, but they feed off of it.”
Without the blitzers, Cal Poly had a tough time putting pressure on either Selle or the Grizzlies’ other quarterback, Oregon transfer Justin Roper, against an offensive line that outweighed the Mustangs’ defensive linemen by an average of nearly 50 pounds.
Montana was able to exploit that fact for huge gains.
“That’s what we do all week is study them,” Grizzlies head coach Bobby Hauk said. “It’s a computerized deal. It’s a study deal. We work a lot of hours, so you come up with a plan.”
The Cal Poly defense failed to record a sack but did enough to keep the Mustangs in the lead until the Montana offensive line finally took over with a 15-play, 69-yard drive that sapped 5:37 off the clock and gave the Grizzlies their first lead at 21-17.
“Once those guys started giving up just a little bit and you feel that dam about to break,” Montana left tackle Levi Horn said, “that’s when you turn it on, and that’s when you sit there and have 10-play drives and put it down their mouth.”