Head coach Tim Walsh got the Gatorade bath that helped keep the hopes of a future soaking alive and well.
Andre Broadous led the three-score comeback to further prove that the Cal Poly football team can be a quick-strike team when needed.
In the biggest spot of his short career, Mustangs kicker James Langford kicked the fourth-quarter, game-winning 39-yard field goal in Saturday’s 27-24 victory over No. 17 South Dakota at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
The list of heroes is long.
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Bijon Samoodi and Max Schulz had late sacks to help usher the Coyotes (5-4, 2-1 Great West Conference) off the field while the Mustangs rallied after being down 24-17 in the final minutes.
With regular returner Asa Jackson sidelined by a foot injury, Greg Francis returned a punt 44 yards to set up the winning score, which Langford kicked with a helicopter trajectory with 36 seconds left in the game.
The victory clinched at least a share of the Mustangs’ first Great West Conference title since 2008 and the last one before all of its current members bolt for other conferences. It also keeps Cal Poly (6-3, 3-0) alive for an at-large berth to the FCS playoffs.
Reminiscent of a comeback victory against Southern Utah two weeks ago where Cal Poly took its first lead of the game with 42 seconds left, Langford’s field goal gave the Mustangs, who trailed South Dakota 17-0 at the half, their first lead Saturday.
As poorly as Cal Poly played in the first two quarters, it needed every big play it could get from each of its stars and took advantage of the absence of the Coyotes’ most pivotal one.
“We might not be more athletic than most of the teams that we play,” Walsh said, “but the character of the young men that we have, who they are as people, it means something. And it’s been pretty evident to me all season long, but it was definitely evident tonight.”
Having already passed for 183 yards and two touchdowns, South Dakota quarterback Dante Warren left the game with 1:45 left in the third quarter, and the Mustangs outscored the Coyotes 17-7 in the fourth.
The senior was replaced by redshirt freshman Josh Vander Maten, who did lead a touchdown drive capped by his own 15-yard scramble, but Vander Maten finished just 3 of 12 for 55 yards and was overwhelmed by the Cal Poly defense when South Dakota needed to churn the clock.
Warren is “a great player,” said linebacker Johnny Millard, who tied for the team high with nine tackles and two for loss. “I think the second quarterback was also a great player — he was shifty, he was good, he made stuff happen, even when it wasn’t there.”
While the Coyotes’ offense sputtered, Broadous ran for touchdowns of 1 and 2 yards and hit senior fullback Jake Romanelli on a 3-yard touchdown pass.
Broadous finished with 117 yards through the air and added 69 yards rushing. Romanelli, a former Templeton High standout, ran for a game-high 88 yards.
Cal Poly had 334 yards from scrimmage, but only 73 of those came in a fruitless first half that featured five punts by freshman Paul Hundley.
The Mustangs had only four first downs in the first half and failed to move any of its drives into the red zone.
If Cal Poly still felt like it was in the game at that point, many of the announced 10,557 in attendance felt otherwise and left the stadium.
“We knew we couldn’t be happy with that,” Broadous said of the team’s first-half output. “That was terrible. That was the worst we’ve ever played in the first half.
“I feel like there’s always a chance to win. I’ve never been a quitter. I’ve never looked at the score. You can’t control that.”