The Cal Poly football team had lost all the momentum of a 14-point first-quarter advantage.
The Mustangs found themselves trailing in the third quarter.
On the road. In a raucous environment. Without much evidence to support the theory of a comeback.
The above scenario might describe Cal Poly’s 35-17 victory over North Dakota on Saturday. It’s also the same exact script that preceded a 24-22 comeback victory at Wyoming two weeks ago.
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Each time, the Mustangs’ offense looked completely out of juice, and in each game, the defense limited the other team on the scoreboard just enough for the offense to find its jumper cables.
Defense and timely scoring. It’s a trend that sounds more appropriate on the baseball diamond, but it has Cal Poly 4-0 to start the season for the first time since 2004 and 2-0 in its first season in the Big Sky Conference.
After North Dakota (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky) took a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, Cal Poly running back Cole Stanford had a career-long 65-yard run to set up the go-ahead 3-yard touchdown plunge by quarterback Andre Broadous, the start of 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points for the Mustangs. Stanford’s run came after five fruitless Mustangs possessions. Cal Poly got its lead with back-to-back touchdowns in the first quarter, the first on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Andre Broadous to Stanford, but after Deonte Williams’ 3-yard scoring run on the next drive, the Mustangs punted three times and missed a 39-yard field goal.
The similarities to the victory over the Cowboys were almost eerie.
In that game, Cal Poly had six scoreless possessions after taking a 14-0 lead after the first two possessions while Wyoming came back to take a one-point lead.
Both times, the Mustangs got the winning score in the fourth quarter. Only now, it might be time to start crediting the defense more than anything.
North Dakota came into the game averaging 46.8 points per game, tops in the Big Sky and third in the FCS. The fewest points North Dakota had scored was 35 in a dominant victory over Sacramento State last week. North Dakota also scored 41 points in a narrow loss at San Diego State.
But Cal Poly, with a defense coming off a season in which it gave up passing yards at an embarrassing rate, has not only looked much improved. The Mustangs are becoming a well-rounded standout defense at the FCS level.
Ranking 13th in the FCS in total defense by allowing an average of 287 yards in the first three games, Cal Poly gave up 409 yards to North Dakota but held one of the most explosive offenses in the country well below its usual scoring output.
The Mustangs also did it by forcing turnovers.
Senior cornerback Nico Molino had two interceptions to increase his team-leading total to four. Sophomore safety Dave Douglas had another pick that was negated by a penalty away from the ball. And defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz recovered two fumbles, one that Wisconsin transfer sophomore defensive end Jake Irwin forced.
This year’s defense certainly seems like the strongest unit in Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh’s four-year tenure with the team. So far, it’s rated higher statistically than any of the others, and if the Mustangs’ defense continues as is, it will have to be considered one of the best in the country.
Cal Poly started the season 7-0 in 2004. The Mustangs finished the regular season 8-2 in 2008, the last time the program got the FCS playoffs.
If either of those seasons are to be eclipsed this year, it might have more to do with the defense, as long as the offense remains timely.