To Ryan Shotwell, it was about time a missed extra point went Cal Poly’s way.
In a football game that seemed destined for overtime, the No. 19 Mustangs came away with a 24-23 regulation win after Southern Utah kicker Ryan Griffith missed an extra point with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Great West Football Conference opener at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday.
“My five years at Cal Poly, I’ve been on the other end of it a couple times too many,” Shotwell said. “I know exactly how those guys feel. It’s going to be a long bus ride home … but it’s nice to be on this side of it.”
Missed kicks played a role in three Mustangs losses in the past year and a half — the most publicized being last November’s 36-35 overtime loss at Wisconsin. To Southern Utah, three losses count as paltry when compared to a 22-year streak of futility for the Thunderbirds in San Luis Obispo because of the miss.
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“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve been through,” Southern Utah receiver Tysson Poots said. “I thought we had a lot of momentum. I thought we had a good play called when we were going to go for two, but then everything just fell apart. It’s just a really horrible feeling.”
The Thunderbirds (2-4, 0-1 Great West) did have one last chance after securing an onside kick, but Shotwell sacked quarterback Cade Cooper to force a fumble, and Carlton Gillespie recovered for the Mustangs (3-3, 1-0) as time expired to seal the win.
It was Cal Poly’s ninth straight victory over Southern Utah, which has not won on the road against the Mustangs since 1987.
It very easily could have gone the other way.
After Poots snatched a 15-yard touchdown pass through a blanket of Mustangs double coverage, Thunderbirds coach Ed Lamb kept his offense on the field to go for the 2-point conversion.
Only after a timeout by Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh did Lamb send his kicking team onto the field.
“We told the guys when we score, we’re going to go for two,” Lamb said, “but after they took the timeout, our coaches started talking about it, and we felt like we were the better team on the field. We just felt like the odds were that our field goal kicker is a good kicker, kicks the PAT, and the better team wins it in overtime, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Southern Utah had outgained Cal Poly by 135 yards and held a nearly 6-minute advantage in time of possession.
Cooper passed for 263 yards and three touchdowns, and Poots had another defining performance against the Mustangs with 12 receptions for 170 yards. Poots had 16 catches for 246 yards last season, records for a Cal Poly opponent.
“He’s a big guy, he runs good routes, catches everything,” said Mustangs safety David Fullerton, who negated a potential first-half Thunderbirds scoring drive with an interception in the end zone. “There was a play where I stepped in front, thought I had it and he pulled it out of my hands.”
In critical times, Cooper locked on to Poots, “and even if you knew it,” Fullerton said, “he made some big plays, like that touchdown in the end.”
Mustangs fullback Jake Romanelli had a breakout game, leading the team with 24 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown — all career highs for the redshirt sophomore.
Subbing in for injured starter Jordan Yocum, Romanelli’s 23-yard touchdown run behind left guard Maurice McClure got the scoring started in the first quarter.
“Scott Winnewisser and big Mo, they opened a huge hole for me and I didn’t get hit until 10 yards down the field,” Romanelli said. “I was lucky enough to make one guy miss and from there just get going.”
It was Romanelli’s fourth-quarter performance he was most proud of.
On a Cal Poly drive finished off by what turned out to be a game-winning 36-yard Chris Pinto field goal, Romanelli had two third-down conversion runs and caught a 6-yard pass on fourth down to keep the Mustangs moving.
Romanelli’s fourth-down catch was the only pass attempted by Cal Poly in the second half. The Mustangs ended with 41 rushes for 202 yards, and coming off an injury, quarterback Tony Smith was just 3 of 7 for 22 yards.
“We were conservative because we ran the ball well when we had the football, and No. 2, we were trying to keep our defense off the field,” Walsh said.