MISSOULA, Mont. — With his team desperately in need of a quick comeback, Tony Smith took his helmet off, put on a jacket and made the toughest decision of his young career as Cal Poly’s starting quarterback.
He had to choke through the bitterness and admit to himself that the team might be better off with someone else at the helm after trying to battle through a first-quarter thigh bruise in the 35-23 loss No. 15 Cal Poly (2-3) was handed by No. 4 Montana (5-0) on Saturday.
While Smith was dealing with the first injury of his career as a starter, redshirt freshman Andre Broadous was unable to get his career off the ground, and third-stringer Harlan Prather eventually showed his experience as the Mustangs’ punter has served him well.
Neither made watching the game any easier on Smith.
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“I tried my hardest to gut it out,” Smith said. “I knew my guys needed me out there, and I did the best I could, but when it comes down to it, being a leader, and part of that is making the right decision, and Andre and Harlan with two legs is better than me with one.”
Mustangs coach Tim Walsh said the decision to go to another quarterback was not one he wanted to make but added that after the hit Smith took to the leg on a quarterback option on Cal Poly’s second drive of the game, the 25,694 people in Washington-Grizzly Stadium weren’t watching the “real” Smith.
Walsh tried to go to Broadous midway through the second quarter, but after the freshman fumbled the snap, Smith re-entered and played with a limp through the third quarter.
“It wasn’t what we wanted,” Walsh said. “It sure as heck wasn’t what Tony wanted. It got to a point where he couldn’t push off, he couldn’t run, and when you’re running the triple option and you have one of the threats that you want to be able to use not able to run, then it’s kind of a big deal.”
Smith went out for good when Cal Poly got its first possession of the fourth quarter trailing 21-17.
Broadous got another chance to play, but after the second false start penalty under his watch, Walsh went to Prather, a senior junior college transfer who’s been the team’s punter since last season.
Prather was eventually able to hook up with senior receiver Mike Anderson for a 59-yard touchdown that cut the Montana lead to 28-23 with about 8 minutes left, but Montana put the game out of reach with a 5-minute touchdown drive to clinch the win.
Through all of the turmoil that was happening on the Cal Poly sideline, Montana coach Bobby Hauk came off as unaware that not only was Smith limping for most of the game, he had also been replaced multiple times by different players.
“He played the whole game didn’t he?” Hauk said. “I know he came out for a series. I think he just missed one series. They put the other guy in a couple times in the second half, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them.
“It didn’t change what they do, so it didn’t change what we do.”
Not even the stat keeper realized that Smith had been replaced by Broadous in the second quarter, and Smith was credited with a 7-yard run that Broadous actually made.
It was after the run, however, that Broadous fumbled. He also dropped the ball on a false start in the fourth quarter as a crowd known for its extreme volume began to reach its peak.
“It’s a tough place to play, and it’s going to be a tough place when you’re taking your first college football snaps,” Walsh said.
“It’s nothing against Andre. We have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and I’m sure he’s pretty devastated right now, but we’ll move on and we’ll get him right. We’ll get him straight, and we’ll get him back.”
Walsh said he’s hoping Smith can get healthy enough to start next week’s Great West Football Conference opener at home against South Dakota.
Hauk and the statkeepers might not have noticed Smith limping for most of the game or that he’d left the field, but to Smith and Cal Poly, his injury hurt the Mustangs’ chances of winning.
“I feel like if I am healthy,” Smith said, “it’s a different ballgame.”