Before Saturday’s football game at North Dakota, Cal Poly senior fullback Jake Romanelli said he’d wanted to see his team’s winning streak extend to three rather than continue his streak of 100-yard rushing games into program-record territory.
The Mustangs (4-3, 2-0 Great West Conference) got the victory — beating the Fighting Sioux 23-19 in Grand Forks, N.D. — but they very nearly could have had both.
Romanelli ran 24 times for a game-high 93 yards, coming up 7 yards short of tying Antonio Warren for the program record with five straight games with 100 or more rushing yards.
With the Mustangs trying to sap the clock to hold off North Dakota late in the game, coaches, who were unaware of the running statistics, had the opportunity to dial up a couple more carries for the former Templeton High standout.
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On a late third-and-5, the ball went to true freshman running back Kristaan Ivory, while Romanelli watched from the sideline, but Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh was shedding no tears for the ended streak, and Romanelli had little reason to temper the celebration of an emotional victory.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I had known (how close he was) at the end of the game,” Walsh said by phone Saturday. “But he had 24 opportunities to get 100 yards with our offensive line.”
Romanelli averaged 3.9 yards per carry and also led the team in receiving yards with a lone 38-yard touchdown catch that gave Cal Poly a 13-6 lead in the second quarter.
Where do we go from here?
Needing to go undefeated the rest of the season to acquire the seven Division I victories strongly recommended by the FCS selection committee as a requirement for playoff consideration, the Mustangs are one step closer.
The need to win hasn’t lost any urgency, but a loss would have changed the complexion of the entire season.
“This game, if we lose, we have no chance” at the playoffs, Walsh said. “Any chances we had, we still have, but if we don’t win the Great West, we don’t get anywhere.”
Entry into the 20-team bracket has to be decided by some objective measure, and polls are an easy one to consider, but the question remains how voters will treat the Mustangs — unranked by both the coaches and the media — after they upset the team ranked No. 20 in the media poll. Walsh said he prefers only to weigh computer polls, which eliminate any bias, and coming into the week, Cal Poly was the 21st-ranked FCS team in the ratings of well-known statistician Jeff Sagarin.
Walsh knows if the Mustangs continue to win, the polls will catch up to the computers.
“You’ve just got to wait your turn, and then you get the respect,” Walsh said.
The Mustangs have yet to pass South Dakota State in the polls, despite beating the Jackrabbits 48-14.
“I look at the computer rankings to get a more real check on that stuff,” Walsh said.
Rodgers injures shoulder
After he left in the first half with a shoulder injury and did not return for most of the game, some took it as a positive sign that senior slotback Mark Rodgers returned to field the final kick return of the game when it was on the line.
With Cal Poly nursing a four-point lead in the final eight minutes, Rodgers returned the kick 20 yards to the Mustangs’ 25-yard line.
Walsh said Rodgers elected to be out there, and had he been following the play-it-safe advice of medical staff, Rodgers might not have retaken the field.
His sore shoulder made him an ineffective blocker, and Rodgers never reappeared in an offensive play from scrimmage in the second half. His status for the next game remains uncertain.
“He just played on a kick return because he wanted to,” Walsh said. “Mark is one of those guys that if he looks you in the eyes, you’ve got to trust and believe him.”
Before he was hurt, Rodgers rushed nine times for 37 yards.