Mark Rodgers is glad he’s gotten the chance to stretch out his arm. Now, the Cal Poly running back wants to start having the senior season he imagined by moving his legs.
And if the Mustangs are going to end their two-game losing streak to start the season in today’s 4:05 p.m. home opener against South Dakota State (1-1), coaches seem to prefer it be with Rodgers and the rest of the runners toting the ball.
“I kind of caught myself being down Monday and Tuesday, and I’m just picking myself up because I’m kind of mad that I haven’t gotten loose,” said Rodgers, who gained 52 yards on 10 carries in last week’s 37-23 loss at Montana but was shut out of the end zone after suffering a hard hit on a pass for negative yardage.
“I just know it’s going to happen for me. I’m not worried about it. Big plays happen, so I’m just looking forward to just to trying to do my thing.”
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Last season, his first after transferring from West Virginia, Rodgers had 100-plus yard efforts against Humboldt State and UC Davis and had a career-high 235 yards on 15 carries at South Dakota in a year when the Mustangs finished 7-4 and were a minute away from an FCS playoff berth.
This year, some of Rodgers’ biggest plays have come on halfback passes. He threw a 52-yard pass to redshirt freshman Lance Castaneda against San Diego State and nearly completed a second deep ball to true freshman Willie Tucker on a pass knocked away by standout Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
In an offensive attack that’s featured fewer than 30 pass attempts and 110 rushing plays in two games, Rodgers’ hurls have been two of the most exciting aerial calls overall.
With a largely inexperienced group at receiver, head coach Tim Walsh and his staff have deferred to the triple-option run game rather than risk stalling a drive with an incomplete pass.
“Do we have more in the playbook? Yeah,” Walsh said. “How much we’re going to use on a weekly basis depends on what we think we need to use.
“There’s times when we can throw, but it’s tough when we’re getting under center and we’re averaging about 5 1⁄2 yards when we snap the ball.
“If we’re getting 3 yards at a time, then maybe you’ve got to do something to loosen them up, but if we’re running the ball as efficiently as I thought we ran the ball for most of the game Saturday, it’s tough to say then, ‘Now we’re going to throw it.’ ”
Cal Poly averaged slightly more than 4 yards per rush against the Grizzlies in a game where the Mustangs held a 23-21 lead with 4:21 left in the third quarter.
At that point, Walsh felt the Mustangs were in control.
When momentum was wrestled away by a methodical Montana offense and a defense that was able to shut down the Cal Poly running game in the fourth quarter, the Mustangs had trouble responding.
Critics would have preferred the team pass its way back into the game with the clock winding down, but it didn’t happen.
South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier noted in a Wednesday conference call with reporters a tendency of Cal Poly to stick with its bread and butter.
“One of the things I find interesting about them is they don’t deviate from the base schemes,” Stiegelmeier said. “From everything we’ve seen, they run the same kickoff return, they do the same thing on punt returns. They run the option offense and they do an excellent job of that. Their defense is a base defense.
“They just have good athletes who know what they’re re doing, and they play really, really hard.”
South Dakota State could present a big challenge to that athleticism today. Though Cal Poly survived to take a 21-14 victory over the Jackrabbits in the teams’ previous meeting in 2009, the South Dakota State defense was very effective at stopping the Mustangs.
Cal Poly had 333 yards of total offense in that meeting and rushed for more than 4 yards per carry but was not consistent enough to put together scoring drives.
The Mustangs scored once on a 47-yard interception return by Asa Jackson and won the game on a fumble recovery by Carlton Gillespie in the final minutes.
The lone offensive score for Cal Poly came on a 1-yard run by David Mahr. The Mustangs also missed a field goal and punted seven times.
And while the Jackrabbits will be busy trying to stop Cal Poly’s run game, the undersized Mustangs’ front will be battling another formidable offensive line.
After giving up 289 rushing yards to San Diego State, Cal Poly improved in that aspect, allowing only 116 against Montana.
But the Mustangs had trouble generating pressure on both Aztecs quarterback Ryan Lindley and Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson.