CEDAR CITY, Utah — It might have looked just like all the rest of the past decade’s games between the Cal Poly football team and Southern Utah if not for two glaring facts.
The first was the scoreboard. The Mustangs (4-3, 0-1 Great West Conference) fell 20-7 Saturday, losing to the Thunderbirds (3-4, 2-0) for the first time since 2000.
The reason for the loss was the other aberration. Cal Poly failed to finish off all but one of its offensive possessions, despite having several opportunities.
With most of the games during the streak decided by 10 points or less, each of the past nine matchups between the two teams had been close.
This time, the Thunderbirds kept the Mustangs out of the end zone until late in the fourth quarter, cruising to victory by that point.
To Cal Poly, this one should have been another close call. But, quite simply, Tysson Poots delivered, and the Mustangs’ playmakers did not.
“Our offense is designed when you get an opportunity to make a play, you’ve got to make a play and we made very few plays today,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “We did some good things on offense, but the bottom line thing is you’ve got to end up in the end zone.
“We had the opportunity to get in there at least two more times and maybe more, and we missed two field goals.”
By the end of the game, Cal Poly led in first downs (21-15) and total yards (376-346). The Mustangs ran 27 more offensive plays than Southern Utah (54) and led in time of possession by nearly 7½ minutes.
They also missed field goals from 40 and 47 yards, saw a pass go through the hands of a receiver in the end zone, lost a fumble just outside the red zone and were stopped on fourth down inside the 5-yard line.
“Their big playmaker made plays,” Walsh said. “(Poots is) a good player. He’s a great player, and I think that’s a credit to him.”
For the fourth straight year, Poots — Southern Utah’s consensus preseason All-America receiver — had a standout game against the Mustangs.
Scoring on an 11-yard pass that put the Thunderbirds up 14-0 midway through the second quarter, Poots finished with nine catches for 132 yards.
The highlight was a 35-yard jump ball where the 6-foot-3, 220-pound NFL prospect caught the ball away from his body and held it over the head of 5-9 Mustangs cornerback Nico Molino as they both fell to the grass turf at Eccles Coliseum.
“I really think the coaches put me in the right opportunities,” Poots said. “This year I’m starting to move around a lot just to the right spot where the ball is coming or maybe as a decoy or something.
“Cal Poly’s such a good team because people are always watching them and we always hear about them. You have to get up for them.”
Had the Mustangs gotten some of the points they missed out on, Walsh said, the score might have looked a lot closer to the 24-23 Cal Poly win last season in San Luis Obispo, where Southern Utah missed an extra point in the final seconds.
Both field goals would have been career bests for Mustangs senior kicker Jake West, whose long came on a 39-yarder at McNeese State three weeks ago.
The 41-yarder, which could have been the first score of the game, missed wide left by a large margin. The 47-yard attempt, which would have put Cal Poly on the board in the final seconds of the first half, had the distance but snuck wide right of the post.
Just 30 seconds earlier, Eric Gardley could not haul in a 38-yard pass from Andre Broadous in the end zone. The throw was on target, and Gardley, a senior, was leaning, but he had his hands on it.
“He told me he’d catch the next one,” Broadous said, “and I said ‘I know.’ He just has to shake it off. Everybody makes bad plays. Unfortunately, it happens, but I know the next time it comes to him, he’s going to make that catch.”
After a breakthrough performance where he helped account for four touchdowns in last week’s 50-37 win at Old Dominion, Broadous again passed for more than 200 yards. But he couldn’t find much room to run in the Mustangs’ triple option and his two fumbles in Southern Utah territory resulted in turnovers.
Toward the end of the third quarter, Broadous was stopped on fourth-and-1 at the Southern Utah 2-yard line when he fumbled the snap before he could hand it off to the fullback. He recovered the bobble for a 1-yard loss.
While trying to wiggle for extra yardage on a scramble in the fourth quarter, Broadous was hit hard from behind by Drew Willard and lost the ball at the Thunderbirds 23-yard line.
“We just didn’t execute,” said Broadous who ended the game with an ice pack on his throwing shoulder, the result of a vicious sack on Cal Poly’s final play from scrimmage. “We had a lot of drives, but just never really finished it. Eleven people didn’t execute at the same time. Sometimes, it would be me. Sometimes, it would be blocks on the perimeter. Sometimes, it would be up front.”