Cal Poly

Threat of big passing day opened up run for Mustangs

The Cal Poly offense, which rolled up 379 rushing yards in Saturday’s 38-24 win at South Dakota, might have been lost without West Virginia transfer running back Mark Rodgers.

In addition to his blockers, Rodgers might have senior receiver Dominique Johnson to thank.

With 235 yards on 155 carries, not only did Rodgers have the fourth-highest rushing total since the No. 19 Mustangs (7-3, 2-1 Great West Conference) moved to Division I in 1994, but his two breakaway touchdown runs were pivotal.

After breaking 100 yards for the first time at Cal Poly, Rodgers was named Great West Offensive Player of the Week on Sunday. Mustangs defensive lineman Gavin Cooper is the conference Defensive Player of the Week after making seven tackles and two sacks.

Scoring on sprints of 44 and 74 yards in the second half after he helped set up Cal Poly’s first score with a 45-yard first-quarter kickoff return, Rodgers ended up accounting for 55 percent of the Mustangs’ yards from scrimmage.

Rodgers now leads the team with 780 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns and sports a 27.5-yard average on kick returns.

His 19 catches for 198 yards and three receiving touchdowns are all second on the team, which also broke out a wildcat formation with him taking snaps for the first time this season Saturday.

Many of Rodgers’ opportunities against South Dakota (4-6, 1-2 Great West), Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, were influenced not by the way the Coyotes were playing the run but how they were playing the pass — Johnson in particular.

Johnson and the Coyotes do have some history.

In a 50-48 shootout at Alex G. Spanos Stadium last season, South Dakota was well on its way to a blowout victory over the Mustangs.

Leading 50-28 late in the third quarter and looking unstoppable with senior quarterback Noah Shepard at the helm, Coyotes head coach Ed Meierkort could only watch as Johnson exploded for three unanswered touchdowns to get Cal Poly within a two-point conversion of sending the game into overtime.

Tony Smith hooked up with Johnson for two scoring strikes of 42 yards and another for 13. Combined with the two he caught earlier in the game, Johnson’s five touchdowns broke the single-game record of four set by Ramses Barden against Weber State in 2007.

In all, Johnson finished with 13 catches for 273 yards, both marks good enough to move him into third place all-time on Cal Poly’s single-game lists.

With the memory still fresh in his mind, Meierkort made sure Johnson, who leads the Mustangs with 41 receptions, 521 and 4 touchdowns on the season, wouldn’t have a repeat performance.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound former UCLA transfer was held without a catch as South Dakota doubled him with safety help and rolled zone coverages to his side of the field, Walsh said.

The strategy worked against the Mustangs’ pass game in general.

Even though Smith improved to 5-0 as a the starting quarterback this season, he was just 2-for-12 passing against the Coyotes with an interception and 41 yards.

Though senior Kellen Moriarty — who had a 54-yard punt return to set up James Langford’s first career field goal — dropped a deep pass with a few steps on his defender, the only completions were to backs.

Fullback Jordan Yocum caught a 7-yard pass, and slot back Gabriel Umoh had two catches for 41 yards, his second reception coming from Rodgers in the Wildcat.

And when Cal Poly coaches noticed how much attention was being paid to Johnson’s side of the field against the pass, the Mustangs exploited it by running Rodgers to areas where the defenders wouldn’t be.

The results might have been frustrating to Johnson, who averaged five catches per game coming in and hadn’t been held to less than three receptions against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, but the effect was vital to Rodgers’ career game and the Cal Poly victory, which kept the Mustangs in the FCS playoff hunt going into their regular-season finale against UC Davis this week.