DAVIS — The Cal Poly football team has unfolded this story enough times to make it seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Four halftime leads. Four losses. All on the road.
The glass ceiling gets even droopier when considering the Mustangs (4-5, 1-2 Great West Football Conference) are 0-5 overall away from home and winless on artificial turf.
The latest in the line of bad mojo for Cal Poly came in a 23-10 loss at UC Davis’s Aggie Stadium on Saturday, where another one of the Mustangs’ on-again off-again foibles crept up and bit them: A troubling ineptitude in the red zone.
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Cal Poly came up empty on both of its trips inside the UC Davis 20-yard line, even failing to capitalize on a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line of the Aggies (5-4, 2-1 Great West).
“Whatever the case is happening,” senior running back Jon Hall said, “it’s not happening. We’re not getting into the end zone. We’re just short-changing ourselves. And I think that’s the most frustrating thing. It’s frustrating to all of us, because our offense is good.”
The Mustangs lost out on their chance to graduate a class that had gone undefeated against its arch rival. UC Davis picked up its first victory since 2005 in the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe and improved to 17-16-2 in the all-time series.
Now, Hall and his teammates must win their final two games of the year to avoid the program’s first losing season since 2003. That one of those final two games will come at Weber State and the team has yet to win on the road doesn’t matter to the players.
“The truth of the matter is we’ve had games go our way,” senior linebacker Carlton Gillespie said. “And the only difference is that we were in SLO and that can’t affect how you execute as a team. We’ve found ways to win. We just haven’t done it on the road and you can’t use that as an excuse.”
It didn’t appear early Saturday that Cal Poly would have so much trouble putting up points.
On the first drive of the game, the Mustangs went 77 yards in eight plays and took a 7-0 lead when sophomore fullback Jake Romanelli broke a tackle and sprinted 42 yards up the middle for his second career touchdown.
Romanelli, a former Templeton High standout, finished with a game-high 62 yards on six carries, and fellow fullback Jordan Yocum had 40 yards on 15 attempts. Hall ran six times for 35 yards and caught two passes for 17 yards.
Much of the team’s troubles on the road have come from missed scoring opportunities. Discounting a 35-23 loss at Montana, Cal Poly has scored only twice in just six total red-zone opportunities away from home.
And when the scoring chances are few, it doesn’t pay to miss them.
“Those things hurt you,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “When you get opportunities to score, you have to take advantage of them. That’s the one thing that they did much better than what we did. They had their scoring opportunities, and they scored points.”
UC Davis’ scores even seemed to magnify Cal Poly’s scoring shortage. The Aggies took the lead for good on a school-record-tying 52-yard field goal by Sean Kelley, which made the score 13-10. Kelley also made field goals of 42 and 35 yards.
Cal Poly kicker Chris Pinto nailed a 38-yard field goal but missed from 23 yards and had a 37-yarder blocked.
UC Davis got its second touchdown on a 4-yard run by backup safety Nick Aprile, who comes in offensively to run the Aggies’ version of the Wildcat offense, a copy straight out of Florida’s playbook appropriately nicknamed “Gator.”
In the same range that UC Davis had success with its Gator, the Mustangs could not get the ball in the end zone. After a Xavier Gardner interception in the second quarter and a 10-yard run by Hall to the Aggies’ 2-yard line, David Mahr was tackled behind the line, Yocum was stopped short on two inside runs and Cal Poly was pushed back to the 6-yard line with a false start on fourth-and-goal.
The Mustangs came up empty on the Pinto miss.
Well aware of the team’s recent history of fading in the second half on the road, Cal Poly vowed to bring the same emotion into the second half as it did in the first, but of three offensive drives in the third quarter, one went three-and-out and the others died around midfield.
UC Davis’ third-quarter drives only averaged 24 yards, but the Aggies took advantage of better field position to build momentum with field goals.
By the time, Aprile ended a 13-play, 91-yard scoring drive with his touchdown run with 9:49 left in the fourth quarter, things had completely swung to his side.
“They made a couple of big third-down conversions in the third quarter,” Walsh said, “and we spent the third quarter trying to get momentum on the offensive side of the ball and didn’t do much again.”