After hurting his right foot returning the opening kick of the second half Saturday, Asa Jackson was done for the day, maybe more.
The senior cornerback sat slumped on a bench on the Cal Poly football sideline, head down, helmet off, as Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen carved up the Mustangs defense like an emergency surgeon playing a game of Operation.
One by one, Mustangs players shuffled over to give Jackson pats on the pads, mouthing vows to their fallen teammate.
The message was clear.
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“We pretty much told him that we’re playing this game for him,” Cal Poly quarterback Andre Broadous said. “For him to have the year he’s been having and to go down with injury, I know that that hurts. We pretty much had to play for him on offense and defense.”
Broadous ran for two touchdowns, including the gutsy game-winner with 45 seconds left, the secondary recovered without Jackson to intercept Sorensen to end the game, and Cal Poly opened Great West Conference play with a 31-27 victory that keeps its championship and playoff hopes alive.
The Mustangs (3-3, 1-0) also got 101 rushing yards and two touchdowns from former Templeton High standout Jake Romanelli, and Broadous finished with 81 yards on the ground.
Sorensen was 25 of 42 passing for 296 yards and two touchdowns, but the Thunderbirds (3-4, 0-3 Great West) fell to 0-4 in games where their quarterback attempted more than 37 passes.
The score was tied at 24 with Southern Utah driving in the final four minutes. Sorensen had a first-down pass at the 26-yard line batted up at the line of scrimmage. Senior safety Greg Francis settled under the ball for an interception that would have changed the complexion of the game.
Instead, cornerback Bijon Samoodi accidentally collided with Francis, who dropped the ball, and the Thunderbirds were able to convert a 34-yard field goal to take a 27-24 lead with 3:22 left in the game.
From there, the Mustangs executed a wacky 70-yard drive that included a reverse to receiver Jarred Houston and a halfback pass back to Broadous to convert a third-down inside the Southern Utah 10-yard line.
Broadous faked an option to Romanelli on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line and shrugged off a couple of tackles to fall over the goal line.
“It felt like a playoff game,” Broadous said. “It felt like our season was on the line. Offensively, it was do or die. When we saw them get the field goal, we felt like it was now or never.”
Jackson returned the opening kickoff in the second half to the Cal Poly 24-yard line, where he was stood up by one defender and knocked over by another.
He remained down on the field and had to be helped off by two trainers while he limped on his right leg. Jackson was later seen with ice wrapped around the arch of his right foot and paced the sideline on crutches in the fourth quarter.
Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said the severity of the injury was unknown Saturday. Walsh said Jackson had an X-ray scheduled for Monday.
Jackson spurred huge swings of momentum when he returned interceptions for touchdowns in each of the past two games. Cal Poly could have used another when Sorensen hit Brady Measom for a 3-yard touchdown that gave the Thunderbirds a 24-17 lead early in the third quarter.
“He’s such a competitive guy,” Walsh said. “I know it killed him to watch that, but I’m sure he’s awful proud of his teammates right now. “There’s going to be bad stuff that happens in the course of a football game, and it’s how you respond to it that makes you a good team that can beat a good team.”
On Southern Utah’s last-gasp attempt to get back in the game, Sorensen lofted a Hail Mary down the right sideline. The fourth-down pass from the Thunderbirds’ 21-yard line sailed in a high arc with Francis tracking it all the way.
In a three-man crowd, the four-year starter came down with his first interception of the season and seventh of his career, atoning for the earlier drop.
“That guy has a great arm,” Francis said. “Luckily, we did our assignments correctly and were able to shut him out for the most part. We did it when we needed.”