OGDEN, Utah — The Cal Poly football team tried to play the role of spoiler to the very end — just like Weber State was auditioning as Goliath.
It won’t be known which one of the two got the part until today, when the Wildcats find out if they’re one of the 16 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision playoff bracket.
But there is no denying that Weber State (7-4) came away with a dominant victory in the teams’ regular-season finale at Stewart Stadium on Saturday, beating the Mustangs (4-7) 47-14.
Despite the Wildcats leading by 31 until late in the third quarter, neither team emptied its bench. Cal Poly even called two timeouts in the final eight seconds to try and extend its last drive, one that was meaningless to the outcome.
Yet, the drive had significance in a larger sense.
With four losses, Weber State backed itself onto the bubble for an at-large playoff berth, and every point can matter in the minds of the selection committee.
“We didn’t want to give them another score,” Weber State head coach Ron McBride said about keeping his starters in late. “The last thing we wanted to do was give them another score because of the playoffs. When you’re playing the numbers game and all that stuff, you gotta win big … If we give them 20 points or 21, it doesn’t look as good. It makes it look like a football game.”
It was not much of a competitive game after midway through the second quarter. Cal Poly had turned the ball over twice and was trailing by three touchdowns by that point.
But the Mustangs still had the motivation to try and spoil the Wildcats’ playoff hopes, especially after Weber State booted them out of the playoffs in the first round last season.
There was also a yearning for the current coaching staff, almost the total majority of which was not around for last season’s game, not to go out on a completely sour note.
“We’re playing enough guys that are getting experience, trust me, on the offensive line alone,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “And I think they battled well. We wanted to put the pressure on our players and say ‘Hey, it’s still the same season, and we want to play better than we played in the first half.’
“I wanted to make a point that that’s not the way we’re capable of playing and that’s not the way Cal Poly’s going to play, and I think our players did respond to it.”
Cal Poly held Weber State scoreless in the third quarter and forced the Wildcats into a punt, something that did not happen at all in the first half.
The Mustangs even held strong on a goal-line stand and forced the Wildcats into a short field goal early in the fourth quarter.
“There were some great things in the second half,” Cal Poly senior linebacker Carlton Gillespie said, “and maybe if we play that whole game that way, it’s a very different outcome. It’s unfortunate that it took that to get us there, but there were some good things to go out on.”
It was still a pretty rough last month of the season for Cal Poly.
By this point in October, the Mustangs were still in the hunt for a playoff berth, but since then, they lost four of five, including four straight to post their first losing season since 2002.
It’s also the first time Cal Poly has lost four in a row since that 2002 season, and the Mustangs hadn’t gone winless on the road since 1998, when the team was also 0-6 away from home under former coach Larry Welsh.
This game, however, was different than the past four road losses. In each of those, Cal Poly held the halftime lead, and although the Mustangs took an early 7-0 lead when Tony Smith hit David Mahr for a 28-yard touchdown pass on the first drive of the game, Weber State quickly changed that.
After Bo Bolen’s 15-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Cameron Higgins tied it at 7, Wildcats cornerback Josh Morris picked off Smith, and Weber State rattled off four straight touchdowns and a field goal before the end of the half.
Higgins, who passed for nearly 400 yards in the teams’ matchup last season, finished this one with 364 passing yards and four touchdowns. Tim Toone caught 11 passes for 176 yards and three scores.
“It’s ultimately 11 on 11, and you have to beat your guy, and every single guy had a moment where they didn’t live up to that, they didn’t do their job,” Gillespie said. “I know I didn’t on that screen. That was completely my fault on that touchdown.”
As for the Wildcats’ potential playoff berth, Cal Poly might have tried to the very last second — when the Mustangs took their final timeout on fourth-and-4 at the Weber State 24-yard line — to make the score less flattering, but that wasn’t because Walsh thinks the Wildcats don’t deserve to get in.
“I’ve been in situations before 7-4 losing to two I-A schools before and didn’t get in,” said Walsh, who was the head coach at Portland State for 14 seasons, “and it’s frustrating as heck because I think they need to pick the best 16 teams in the country to play for the national championship. And if they don’t, I think they’re making a big mistake.”