They didn’t care if it didn’t “count.” Cal Poly football players could simply exhale for the first time in a while.
The Mustangs’ 44-14 win over Division II Dixie State on Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium didn’t count toward their FCS playoff-eligibility requirement of seven Division I wins, but they at last found some breathing room.
No. 20 Cal Poly, which has four Division I-counting games left, entered Saturday coming off four straight games that had been decided by less than two touchdowns apiece.
And in each close call, the Mustangs (4-3) either pulled ahead or gave up pivotal touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, including in last week’s last-minute, 24-23 win over Southern Utah.
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There was no such suspense against Dixie State (4-5), as Cal Poly players were celebrating on the sideline before halftime.
“We wanted to get away from those types of (close) games, just because it takes a lot out of you,” Mustangs receiver Dominique Johnson said with a relieved smile. “It’s always better for you when you can come out and jump on top and just grind them up the rest of the game, as opposed to fighting from behind or going back and forth and coming down to the last play of the game.”
With the outcome never in doubt, Cal Poly sent backups in all over the field early in the third quarter.
“Those (close) games are exciting; they get the fans into it,” Cal Poly safety David Fullerton said. “But it does feel good to come out and play very well and put a lot of points on the board and kind of take it easy at the end.”
The game also saw the uncorking of both quarterback Tony Smith and Johnson, each of whom had been grappling with injuries in recent weeks.
With 23 seconds left in the first quarter, Smith hit Johnson — a heralded transfer from UCLA — for a 73-yard touchdown pass.
Prior to the play — Smith’s first scoring pass since the season opener — Johnson’s longest reception of the season had been for 30 yards.
Smith finished 7-of-13 passing for 119 yards and two touchdowns, and added a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs. Johnson had one other catch for 18 yards.
Templeton High grad Jake Romanelli finished with a game-high 96 rushing yards on 19 attempts for Cal Poly.
The Mustangs scored a touchdown after a Fullerton 24-yard interception return to the Red Storm 4-yard line, another after a 59-yard punt return to the 5 by Asa Jackson, another on a blocked punt by Ryan Taylor and one more on a 32-yard fumble recovery-and-run by linebacker Kenny Jackson.
“Blocking a punt is probably the most devastating play in football,” Cal Poly linebacker Carlton Gillespie said. “And watching Kenny take that fumble to the house, those are big plays that get your sideline going. It’s a big deal to see those types of plays happen in all phases of the game.”
Gillespie had two of Cal Poly’s six sacks, and Greg Francis and Bijon Samoodi also intercepted passes for Cal Poly.
“We challenged our defense after last week to play faster and play harder every down,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “They rose to the challenge.”
Cal Poly won despite gaining just 11 first downs compared to Dixie State’s 18.
“I don’t think we played extremely well on the offensive side, but we played well enough,” Walsh said. “In the other two phases, I thought we were dominant.”
The Mustangs lost the shutout with 3:13 left in the third, as Tauni Vakapuna got in the end zone on a 33-yard run against mostly subs.
“A lot of guys got the opportunity to play,” Walsh said. “That’s going to make us better down the road.”