DAVIS — After a certain point, everything being done had an air of desperation.
The nine fourth-down conversion attempts said as much for the Cal Poly football team in Saturday’s 24-17 loss at UC Davis as anything else.
The all-or-nothing nature was fittingly familiar and a natural progression. The Mustangs have been playing with their backs against the wall for weeks.
But as the rain poured down and the 9,460 filed out of Aggie Stadium, the usual abandon proved insufficient to keep Cal Poly (5-4, 3-1 Great West Conference) on its playoff-fueled roll.
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As if it could accompany nothing else but a defeat, the end of Andre Broadous’ unofficial school-record streak of passes without an interception could have hardly come at a worse time.
Preferably a plodding, time-munching offensive team, the Mustangs fell behind 24-3 in the third quarter, prompting a need for quick strikes.
And facing theoretical elimination from contention for an FCS at-large berth since a 47-30 loss at Northern Illinois in late September, the unicycle finally slipped from the tightrope.
“The last few weeks have not been easy, and we found ways to win,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said, “Today, we came up short. Emotionally, we may need to recharge a little bit.”
With two regular-season games remaining, Cal Poly is unable to secure the seven Division I victories recommended to earn consideration for an at-large berth to the 20-team FCS playoff bracket.
The Mustangs had already assured themselves at least a share of the Great West title, but the conference does not award an automatic berth.
By dashing those playoff hopes for a second straight season, the Aggies (3-6, 1-2 Great West) again proved rivalry games aren’t won on paper. UC Davis ended Cal Poly’s season with a 22-21 victory last year that the Mustangs led 21-0 in the second quarter. Cal Poly had a 10-3 halftime lead in a 2009 loss in Davis.
With Saturday’s deflating defeat, Walsh fell to 0-3 in the Mustangs’ annual fight for the Golden Horseshoe.
Walsh said he wasn’t proud of his results against the Aggies, but Cal Poly players wouldn’t let him own the entire foible.
“They’ve done a good job over the last three years, and we haven’t been able to pull it out,” junior linebacker Kennith Jackson said, “but as far as scheming, I think our coaches do a great job of getting us in the right positions. Then it’s up to us to go out there and make plays to make it happen because coaches don’t play, we do.”
Despite holding the ball with one last chance to tie or take the lead, the Mustangs didn’t play well, especially early.
After getting a 26-yard field goal by James Langford on the first possession of the game, Cal Poly didn’t score again until 1:50 left in the third quarter when Broadous ran it in from 1 yard out.
After Broadous threw his first career interception on his 208th career pass attempt to end a drive at the UC Davis 32-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Deonte Williams scored on a 1-yard toss play with 2:08 left.
Filling in for injured senior Mark Rodgers, Williams — a former Northern Arizona transfer and native of South Sacramento — had a career-high 21 carries for 100 yards.
Broadous passed for 115 yards but netted 1 negative yard on the ground, lost a fumble in addition to the interception and was sacked five times.
After Williams’ score pulled Cal Poly to within a touchdown, the Mustangs were unable to recover an onside kick. Cal Poly leveraged all of its second-half timeouts to force UC Davis to punt with 1:54 left.
But a penalty pinned the Mustangs at their own 5-yard line, and on second-and-10 from the 16, Broadous was sacked by the Aggies’ Tommy Grillo and lost a fumble to effectively end the game.
“We were definitely confident,” Broadous said about coming from behind. “But Davis had a good strategy against what we were doing. So, for us to win the game, people were going to have to make some great plays. And unfortunately we didn’t get to do that.
“It did come down to the last drive, but we should have played better before that last drive.”
The Mustangs finished six of nine on fourth-down conversions, but it will be hard to forget two failed attempts in the first half that could have been field goals.
Broadous was sacked on fourth-and-7 at the UC Davis 22-yard line trailing 7-3 in the first quarter. And down 21-3 midway late in the second quarter, Broadous was sacked for a 7-yard loss on fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line.
“We’ve lived and died on fourth downs,” Walsh said, “and I decided to live and die on fourth down again today. Maybe we did die.”