With NFL aspirations and only two games left in his senior season before Saturday night’s 53-51 loss to Eastern Washington, Cal Poly slotback Mark Rodgers has heard his football clock ticking ever since injuring his shoulder at North Dakota.
The senior has missed each of the past two games but made his return against the Eagles.
There was some doubt about how well his shoulder would hold up, but Rodgers answered those questions early.
Though he practiced for the first time since separating his shoulder on the thin turf in North Dakota, the Mustangs practiced without pads throughout the week, running though their gameplan in non-contact drills.
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The first hit Rodgers took came on a run for a 5-yard loss on Cal Poly’s first series, but his contributions steadily improved after that.
By the half, Rodgers had run four times for 20 yards and led the Mustangs in receiving with three catches for 18 yards. His 30-yard kick return, the first since his injury, set up a 22-yard touchdown pass from Andre Broadous to Lance Castaneda that cut Eastern Washington’s lead to 21-14 going into the half.
While Rodgers was coming back from injury, a few other Cal Poly seniors were going out.
Senior fullback Jake Romanelli — a former Templeton High standout playing his final game in front of the San Luis Obispo County fans — had a game-high 74 yards on 13 carries at the half, but he missed a chunk of the first half after hobbling off the field.
Romanelli eventually returned before the end of the second quarter, but after he started receiving attention at the training table, it became a crowded area.
On the next defensive possession, senior defensive tackle Kevin Hess had to be helped from the field as he grabbed at his neck and shoulder through the top of his jersey.
Only plays later, another local product joined the group. Former Atascadero High standout and starting defensive end Brandon Roberts stayed on the ground with his left arm laying flat.
Taken to receive X-rays for a fractured arm, Roberts might also be joining another select group. Both senior defensive end Matt Singletary and sophomore cornerback Vante Smith-Johnson suited up with white casts one of their arms.
Led by quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the leading passer in the FCS, the Eastern Washington offense racked up 279 first-half yards while putting together three impressive scoring drives.
Despite the Eagles’ offensive success, Cal Poly had a chance to take control when the Mustangs forced the first punt of the game and drove into Eastern Washington territory early in the second quarter.
With Cal Poly trailing 14-7, Asa Jackson returned a punt 41 yards, and the Mustangs eventually advanced to a fourth-and-1 at the Eagles’ 34.
With the offense lined up tightly to run for the first down, senior receiver Jarred Houston left the line early while split out wide on the near side of the field, prompting a 5-yard false-start penalty.
Following the lost yardage, Cal Poly punted away for a touchback and Mitchell struck for a 15-yard touchdown pass to Nicholas Edwards for what might have been a 14-point swing.