Cal Poly finally figured out a way to stop South Dakota quarterback Noah Shepard.
The Mustangs even had Dominique Johnson living up to preseason comparisons to Ramses Barden — and surpassing them.But when it came down to the difference between a win and a loss Saturday, the Cal Poly football team still left Alex G. Spanos Stadium as the last-place team in the Great West Football Conference.
After tying Jonathan Dally’s single-game school record with six touchdown passes, Mustangs quarterback Tony Smith had a potential game-tying two-point conversion pass knocked down behind the line of scrimmage with 20 seconds left, and Cal Poly (4-6, 1-3 Great West) fell 50-48 to the visiting Coyotes (5-5, 2-2 Great West) in its home finale.
Cal Poly senior safety David Fullerton recovered an onside kickoff on the Mustangs’ 48-yard line with 18 seconds left, but Smith followed that with four straight incompletions.
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“I think the heart and the courage we showed, fighting back for as long as we did, really showed something about this team and the future we have in store for us,” said Smith, who passed for a career-high 407 yards on 24-of-38 passing.
“It showed that we can do some pretty good stuff, so that’s always good. There are things to build off of, and there’s also some things we need to work on still.”
In a near-perfect game, Shepard passed for 413 and five touchdowns and ran for another 61 yards and two scores as Cal Poly failed to stop South Dakota on the Coyotes’ first eight drives of the game. The Mustangs didn’t force a punt from South Dakota until two minutes into the fourth quarter.
The only way Cal Poly was able to keep up with the Coyotes was with a huge game by Johnson, a late transfer from UCLA this past summer.
After catching just one score all season, Johnson broke out with five touchdown receptions Saturday, breaking a record previously held by Barden, currently on the New York Giants and one of the most prolific touchdown catchers in NCAA football history.
“We think he’s going to become a dominant player,” Mustangs coach Tim Walsh said of the redshirt junior, “and he’s going to become a big part of it.”
Johnson’s 13 receptions tie him for third in Cal Poly’s all-time record books. Only San Diego Chargers receiver Kassim Osgood (15 and 17) had more catches in a single game.
Johnson’s 273 yards also ranks him second to Osgood’s school-record 376 and bumps Barden’s 268-yard effort against Idaho State in 2007 down to third on the Division I list.
“I’ve been waiting for the opportunities all year, and they finally came,” Johnson said. “I was just trying to pull it out and send these seniors out of this stadium with a victory.”
Shepard, though, was the senior who went home happy.
His five touchdown passes were all to different players, and it looked like no matter what the Mustangs did defensively, there was no way to stop him.
The end of his game, though, was one to forget. He threw an interception right into the hands of Cal Poly safety Greg Francis to end the third quarter, and each of his last two drives ended fruitless.
That left him on the sideline for what seemed like an eternity as Cal Poly, which was down by as many as 22 points three separate times in the second half, was threatening to tie the score.
“It’s just a bad feeling because the game’s out of your hands,” Shepard said. “You can only do so much when you’re out there, but you can’t do nothing on the sidelines, and the way they were playing, anything could happen.”
South Dakota went into the half leading 29-14, and after scoring a touchdown just 36 seconds into the third quarter on a 35-yard pass from Shepard to Dan Skelly, it looked like the Coyotes were well on their way to avenging the 49-22 blowout loss handed to them by Barden and company last season.
That was when Cal Poly suddenly began a scoring barrage.
Eric Gardley caught a 42-yard bomb from Smith. Johnson took a 15-yard curl and ran 59 yards for a score when his defender fell down in front of him.
Johnson cut the lead to its final deficit when Smith rolled out to the left and lobbed a pass high in the air but short of his receiver.
From behind, Johnson outleapt South Dakota safety Shane Potter to haul in the 42-yard touchdown pass.
“It could have been 50-21,” Walsh said, “but we made it to where we had one more chance to win the game.”