The Cal Poly football team wasn’t quite penciling in practice times for next week just yet, but it looked like the Mustangs were ready to extend their season — when all of a sudden, they weren’t.
Cal Poly (7-4, 2-2 Great West conference) lost its playoff ambitions, as well as the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe, when UC Davis (5-5, 3-1 Great West) stole a 22-21 comeback win in the final 35 seconds in front of 11,075 at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday.
It was the first sellout since the 2008 season finale against the Aggies, after which the Mustangs went on to host their first Division I-Football Championship Subdivision playoff game.
A win would have given Cal Poly the necessary seven Division I victories to qualify for an at-large playoff berth this season, and the Mustangs would have felt pretty comfortable that they would get one — about as comfortable as having a 21-3 lead and the ball to start the third quarter.
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Instead, they lost a hold on both, and, as Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, the Mustangs have only themselves to blame.
“There’s no question we definitely dominated the first half, and we definitely dominated the second half,” Walsh said, “but the second half, we dominated with mistakes, and the first half, we dominated it with execution.
“I give Davis a lot of credit for coming back,” Walsh said, “but I want to emphasize this: We lost the game by what we did because we gave them the football. I’m not taking anything away from their win or their comeback or anything, but when you give them the ball as easily as we gave them the ball back, you’re not going to win a lot of ballgames.”
Despite the 18-point lead and the 268 yards of total offense in the first half, the Mustangs turned the ball over on three of their first four possessions of the second half, when they accumulated just 91 yards from scrimmage.
Senior quarterback Tony Smith threw an interception, and junior fullback Jake Romanelli lost a fumble. Cal Poly punted on its next drive, and then Smith could not connect with junior running back Mark Rodgers, who had 17 carries for 102 yards, on a pitch to the outside.
The Mustangs also turned the ball over on downs twice in the fourth quarter, once on a costly fourth-and-1 inch where Rodgers was stopped for a loss on a pitch to the right and finally on a last-gasp effort to retake the lead in the final seconds.
The offensive ineptitude allowed UC Davis to creep back into the game with 19- and 20-yard field goals and a 16-yard touchdown pass from Randy Wright to Sean Creadick.
The coup de grace was a 5-yard touchdown pass to Creadick with 35 seconds left.
“They got some plays to get the momentum,” Smith said. “We couldn’t get it back, and it’s just very disappointing.”
Smith and the offense had been very effective in their first two drives. The Mustangs sapped most of the first quarter on drives that accounted for a combined for 148 yards and nearly 11 minutes.
Romanelli polished both off with 1-yard touchdown runs, and senior fullback Jordan Yocum had another 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
When things did start to slow down offensively in the second half, Cal Poly did not go to sophomore quarterback Andre Broadous, who has been recovering from a shoulder injury for the past month but was ruled healthy for this week’s game.
Though he thought about inserting Broadous, Walsh had faith in Smith, who started every game last season and began this year as the starter before being sidelined with a neck injury after the second game of the season.
Smith was 5-0 as the starter coming into Saturday.
“Tony had some issues that he had to deal with, and that’s unfortunate,” Walsh said of his miscues against UC Davis, “but he had played so well in the first half that we thought we were going to be able to get back in that rhythm, and we just never ever got back in that rhythm on the offensive side of the ball for whatever reason.”
Whatever that reason was, the Aggies were not taking credit for it schematically. UC Davis coach Bob Biggs said that his defense made only minor changes in the game plan adjusting to Cal Poly’s offense.
“It’s not that we did anything different than what we had in the game plan,” Biggs said. “We just came out and played hard and made plays when we had to. Cal Poly turned the ball over, obviously four times, but I think it was just our kids’ will to win, I really do.”