GRAND FORKS, N.D. — With a squinty wince of pain painted on his face, Scott Winnewisser snailed his way through the solemn halls on Cal Poly’s side of the Alerus Center.
The bearded redshirt sophomore had played his way through a 31-17 Mustangs football loss at North Dakota, pushing through an ankle injury to help keep an already patchwork offensive line from becoming even more short-handed.
On his way to the Cal Poly team bus Saturday, Winnewisser was one of many players limping with the double dose of pain — that of injury and of the devastating loss.
Though Winnewisser was able to play, he was moved to guard to compensate for the loss of three-year starting guard Will Mitchell, who stayed home with a high ankle sprain.
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The No. 18 Mustangs (4-4, 1-1 Great West Football Conference) have also been without right tackle Art Munoz for most of the season and center Jason Cox for all of it.
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh did not say how the Mustangs’ struggles in the running game related to an offensive line short on experience. Cal Poly had just 62 yards on 27 rushing attempts.
Injuries, though they’ve hit Cal Poly especially hard this season, haven’t been a point of complaint for Walsh.
“You play with the guys you got,” Walsh said. “Man, I’ll say it over and over again. I’m not going to make excuses for the way we played. Our guys played as hard as they could possibly play, and if it wasn’t good enough, then those guys are better than us.”
By their résumé, the Fighting Sioux (4-4, 2-1 GWFC) didn’t appear better coming in. North Dakota was coming off a 28-13 loss to NAIA Sioux Falls and a 25-point loss to Southern Utah, a team Cal Poly nipped by one at home.
But the Fighting Sioux had more consistent success running the ball against the Mustangs than any other team this season, Walsh said. North Dakota running back Mitch Sutton had 143 yards on 30 carries and scored two second-half touchdowns to seal the win. In addition, Fighting Sioux quarterback Jake Landry, who came into the game gaining fewer than 2 yards per rush, ran 15 times for 92 yards and another touchdown.
That had nothing to do with Cal Poly’s offensive line, but it may have pointed to another injury.
More understated than previous injuries to the Mustangs’ running backs, receivers, quarterback and even the offensive line, nose guard James Chen’s absence was no less costly.
Chen, a redshirt junior who’s been dealing with a bevy of leg injuries his entire career at Cal Poly, stayed behind with another one.
Without the 6-foot-2, 270-pounder on the field, the Mustangs’ edge rushers went right after Landry, and the North Dakota quarterback responded by waltzing right up the undermanned middle.
“James Chen, he has great explosion. He gets off the ball really well,” senior defensive end Ryan Shotwell said. “He’s quick, but he’s really powerful as well. And he can maintain those pass rush lanes really well and squirt the quarterback out to us.
“It’s just hard to get continuity when we have different players in there, every snap a different guy is coming in.”
As it was, Landry found lanes to run, and the Mustangs struggled to bring down the 6-2, 210-pound quarterback. His 28-yard touchdown run came after shedding no fewer than four tacklers.
Starting with that early second-quarter touchdown, which tightened up a 10-0 Cal Poly lead, it was nearly all downhill for the Mustangs after that.
“James is a great player and any time you have a great player, you hope he could make a difference, but the truth is he wasn’t here,” Walsh said.
And as Walsh was quick to point out, it doesn’t change the fact that North Dakota outplayed Cal Poly in every phase of the game for three quarters of Saturday’s loss.