There was no question who Cal Poly’s offensive MVP was in Saturday’s 38-24 comeback win at South Dakota.
Defensively, there were plenty of heroes.
On a day where leading receiver Dominique Johnson was held without a catch, junior running back Mark Rodgers had a career day with 235 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries to help the Mustangs (7-3, 2-1 Great West Conference) erase a two-touchdown deficit with a 38-10 scoring run to end the game, scoring was half the story.
The rest was keeping the Coyotes (4-6, 1-3 Great West) out of the end zone.
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Nico Molino, Kenny Jackson and Gavin Cooper each made huge plays for the Cal Poly defense, which was without two starting defensive backs against a team that passed for five touchdowns in last season’s matchup.
“Gavin Cooper did some things that set a tone for us on the edge with the sacks, and there were so many guys who made plays off the edge,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said in a phone interview. “It was fun to watch.”
Cooper was making his return to the lineup after sitting out last week’s victory over St. Francis. The junior defensive end missed practice during that week’s preparation to catch up on school work, and Walsh held him out because of it.
Whereas the Mustangs went without a sack against St. Francis and Walsh bemoaned the lack of pressure by his defensive line on the Red Flash’s quarterback, Cooper provided it Saturday.
Included with seven total tackles, Cooper took down South Dakota quarterback Dante Warren behind the line twice, upping his team-leading sack total to five.
Molino was playing in place of junior cornerback Asa Jackson, who was sidelined with a hip injury suffered against St. Francis. Junior safety Greg Francis was also out for Cal Poly.
Normally matched up on the other side, Molino drew the assignment of guarding Will Powell, South Dakota’s top receiver, who gashed the Mustangs for 168 yards and two first-half touchdowns.
But in the second half, Molino was able to clamp down on Powell, coming up with an interception, two pass breakups and a team-high 10 tackles — one for loss.
“Dante Warren’s a good player, and Will Powell’s a good player,” Walsh said, “but I think as the game wore on they wore out.”
Molino’s biggest stop came when he forced Warren out of bounds 1 yard short of a first down early in the fourth quarter, forcing the Coyotes to punt and giving Cal Poly the chance to go up by two scores for the first time.
Molino also had a breakup against Powell in the end zone to preserve that two-score lead in the final three minutes.
His third-quarter interception kept South Dakota from scoring on a drive that started at the Mustangs’ 27-yard line.
Kenny Jackson, who has been fighting through a shoulder injury all season, finished with eight tackles, including two for loss.
“When Kenny is healthy, and he practices, and his mind’s into it,” Walsh said, “he is a tremendous athlete. He plays so much faster when he feels comfortable in the setting that he’s in, and tonight, he really settled into it.”
In the Coyotes’ two best chances to score in the fourth quarter, it was Jackson coming up with huge stops to help keep them at bay.
After Cal Poly took its first lead at 31-24 with 12:53 left in the fourth quarter, South Dakota kick returner Jeremy Blount returned the ball to the Mustangs 22-yard line.
On the next play, Jackson burst through the line to redirect Coyotes running back Chris Gainous, who was tackled for an 8-yard loss by Molino.
Then, Jackson teamed with Matt Singletary to take down London Landry for a 3-yard loss, and after an incomplete pass on third down, South Dakota missed a 50-yard field goal.
On third-and-10 from the Cal Poly 11-yard line just two drives later, Jackson stuffed Gainous for a loss of 2 yards, and Molino knocked down a pass for Powell to kill the possession on fourth down.
“We were (down) 14-0 without Greg Francis, without Asa Jackson,” Walsh said, “and guys like Nico Molino who struggled in the first quarter, played a great three quarters and made plays at the end of the game. Defensively, we played so well after giving ourselves a 14-0 hole.”