HUNTSVILLE, Texas — ’Tis the season, after all, but this kind of holiday spirit is usually reserved for spoiling grandchildren.
As much as it irked Tim Walsh to address turnovers and penalties after his FCS playoff debut as head coach of the Cal Poly football team, they were the undeniable themes in an 18-16 second-round loss at Sam Houston State on Saturday.
And they gift-wrapped the Bearkats too many points for the No. 12 Mustangs (9-3) to keep a remarkable season going.
Cal Poly had three turnovers and gave the ball away once more on downs in the first half alone. Then, both second-half scoring drives by No. 5 Sam Houston State (9-3) were bolstered by a total of three personal foul penalties.
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Walsh tried to keep the focus in the postgame news conference away from the flubs and on the effort of a team that started the season 7-0 and had its first upset of a FBS opponent in five years.
“A football game never comes down to six plays,” Walsh said. “There’s probably about another 140 plays in that football game where we could have made a difference.
“In a game like that, I think both teams feel like whoever won it was pretty fortunate to have won it.”
And maybe the taste of this loss just wasn’t as bitter as the last time the program was in the playoffs, a turnover-filled first-round home loss to Weber State when Rich Ellerson’s Mustangs were a trendy pick to win the FCS title.
Sophomore receiver Willie Tucker has a couple more years to chase the college football dream, so his demeanor was understandably tempered. But fifth-year senior quarterback Andre Broadous remained stoic and proud in the same situation where NFL receiver Ramses Barden broke down emotionally in 2008.
The difference this time, in spite of the turnovers and penalties, was that Cal Poly felt like it went down swinging its hardest.
“I didn’t think they were better than us,” Tucker said. “I didn’t think they were worse than us. It was just a good fight, and they we’re obviously the better team tonight coming out with the victory, but I definitely say we played 100 percent. I’ve never seen our defense play with that much tenacity. They just played awesome.”
Tucker had six catches for a game-high 152 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown on a reverse pass by reserve receiver Ryan Taylor to cut the Sam Houston State lead to two with 1:44 left, and the Cal Poly defense played its finest game of the season, but in the end, the mistakes were too much to overcome.
Sam Houston State averaged just 3.8 yards per play. The Bearkats had only two fewer first downs than Cal Poly, but they had 146 fewer offensive yards.
Sam Houston State’s 241 yards from scrimmage were 141 fewer than its previous season low in last week’s 47-28 loss at FBS power Texas A&M.
But a blocked Mustangs punt led to a Bearkats safety. A muffed punt return inside the 10 led to a Sam Houston State a field goal. And the personal fouls helped the Bearkats move the ball without forcing them to prove that they could.
For a Cal Poly defense that held the highest scoring team in the FCS to season lows across the board, the personal fouls might not have been flagrant, but they undeniably helped Sam Houston State score.
On a 93-yard eight-play Bearkats drive, 30 of the first 64 yards came on flagged hits against Cal Poly cornerback Vante Smith-Johnson and Nick Dzubnar for tackling players out of bounds.
A 26-yard swing pass for a touchdown from Brian Bell to Keshawn Hill gave Sam Houston State a 15-6 lead with 31 seconds left in the third quarter.
Bearkats kicker Miguel Antonio had what turned out to be the winning score with a 26-yard field goal with 3:23 left in the game on a 66-yard drive that was jump-started by another late hit by Dzubnar.
That flag turned third-and-4 near midfield into first-and-10 at the Cal Poly 25.
Still, while praising the all-out effort of his players, Walsh took exception to the idea that their errors accounted for so much.
“Fans and media look at personal fouls like they’re always these negative things,” Walsh said. “Those are hustle plays. Guys were hustling to the football and trying to tackle the football. That’s the name of the game, and sometimes when you do that, maybe the guy’s foot is out of bounds. Those were not intentional or deliberate.
“Our guys played their tails off on those plays, and if they call penalties on them, they call penalties on them. … I’m not pointing my finger at those at all.”