DAVIS — Perhaps lost in a record-setting rushing performance by Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown in the Mustangs football team’s 34-16 rivalry victory over UC Davis was another terrific defensive performance.
In back-to-back losses to Montana and Northern Arizona, the Cal Poly defense held those opponents to a respective 14 and 17 points in regulation, and the Mustangs did it again Saturday, led by a trio of seniors.
Cal Poly forced three turnovers, intercepting Aggies senior quarterback Randy Wright twice and forcing a fumble.
Senior safety Alex Hubbard had a fourth-quarter interception to set up the scoring drive that put the game out of reach. Senior cornerback Bijon Samoodi had a first-quarter interception to set up the drive that put the Mustangs on the board and gave them a 7-3 lead in the second quarter.
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Senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz had a red-zone sack that forced UC Davis to settle for a second-quarter field goal and nailed Aggies running back Gabe Manzanares to force a fourth-quarter fumble that ended up being recovered by Samoodi.
That final turnover set up a 5-yard touchdown run for the final score by Brown, whose 195 rushing yards were the highest single-game total by a Cal Poly quarterback in program history.
UC Davis consistently moved the ball, but in the Aggies’ four trips to the red zone, they had to settle for three field goals between 26 and 35 yards.
“The big thing for us is keeping them out of the end zone,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “Field goals don’t win games; touchdowns win games.”
Hubbard highlighted by Aggies coach
First-year UC Davis head coach Ron Gould was concerned about Hubbard coming into the game, praising the 5-foot-9, 185-pound senior for his play-making in media sessions.
Gould, a former longtime offensive assistant at Cal who also played safety at Oregon, had a direct view of the route Hubbard jumped for his interception.
“Alex is a phenomenal player. I alluded to it all week,” Gould said. “On film, I thought he was a lot bigger than he was in person, but he plays like he’s 220 pounds. He’s got speed, but his football IQ is something that’s (off) the charts.”
Prior to the game, Gould theorized about Hubbard being the top safety in the Big Sky Conference, and Hubbard said he even heard Gould give him credit for another good read from the sideline during the game.
“I appreciate it,” Hubbard said. “I appreciate all the love I get from all the coaches, but I still have to make plays. I still have to keep playing every day.”
UC Davis RB hits rare milestone
Coming into the game as the second-leading rusher in the Big Sky, Manzanares carried the ball 29 times for 141 yards.
It pushed his season total to 1,031 yards on the season, a rarity for UC Davis. The Aggies have not had a 1,000-yard rusher in more than a decade. Matt Massari, the brother of UC Santa Barbara athletic director Mark Massari, was the most recent, rushing for 1,274 yards in 2002.
When Manzanares fumbled, it was just his third time losing possession of the ball on 225 combined rushes and receptions this season.
Mustangs needed pick-me-up
When UC Davis struck for a score-tying touchdown with just 18 seconds left in the second quarter, it conjured memories of the two close losses to the Grizzlies and Lumberjacks that may have just doomed Cal Poly’s pursuit of a conference title and FCS playoff berth in the past two weeks.
Walsh said he made sure to address the situation during the break.
“The last two weeks, we played our hearts out, and we lost really difficult games,” he said. “At halftime, we found ourselves in the same situation, and I said, ‘Hey, man, it’s about time we learned how to win these games.’ ”
Still one sticking point
The Mustangs still came away unhappy with one aspect of their victory: They got stuffed once again on short yardage.
Brown was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the UC Davis 25 with Cal Poly leading 7-6 early in the second quarter. The Mustangs were similarly stymied on third-and-1 on their first possession of the third quarter.
The lack of success on fourth down has mirrored the discrepancy in won-loss record between this season and last year’s playoff campaign.
In 2012, Cal Poly converted 71.4 percent of its fourth downs. The Mustangs are down to 53 percent on fourth down this season.
“The fourth-down thing we’ve got to get cleaned up,” Walsh said, “because our offense is suited for fourth-and-1.”