FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Cal Poly football team had plenty of great plays Saturday.
There was a 50-yard catch and a later touchdown by Jordan Hines, a 44-yard grab by Roland Jackson and a crucial 15-yard third-down reception by Carson McMurtrey that kept a late drive alive.
Some big plays came on defense, too. Cameron Ontko and Marcus Paige-Allen each had key stops in a successful first-half goal-line stand, and Ontko sacked Northern Arizona quarterback Chase Cartwright for an 11-yard loss to force a punt with less than three minutes left in the game and the Mustangs up by four.
The only one Cal Poly (1-3) was missing in a 38-35 Big Sky Conference-opening loss to the Lumberjacks (3-2) was the winning play.
Ontko saw a game-clinching interception slip through his fingers just seconds before Northern Arizona passed for the winning touchdown. And if the Mustangs’ offense had gotten one first down on its previous possession, the game would have been over.
“That’s what I mean,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “You get an opportunity to make a play, at some point in time, we’ve got to make plays.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t make the one play, which is what you need in a game like that. You’ve got to make one play to get off the field on defense, got to get that extra touchdown on offense or that extra first down on offense.”
Instead, it was Cartwright baiting the Cal Poly linebackers on fourth-and-4 at the Mustangs’ 12-yard line. Cart-wright faked as if he would scramble for the first down, and when the Mustangs’ defenders peeled off their coverage, he quickly flipped a pass to running back Casey Jahn for an easy score with just 21 seconds left.
“I knew we only needed 4 yards,” Cartwright said. “If I could make one guy miss, maybe I could get it all by myself. Luckily, he left Casey alone, and it just flashed. I dumped it off to him, Casey made a great play and scored the wining touchdown.”
All the while, Cal Poly’s offense was on the sideline watching anxiously. If the defense didn’t hold up, it was likely going to take a miracle to get back into field-goal range.
“I was getting nervous,” Hines said. “I was doing a lot of praying just hoping that our defense was going to come up and make a play, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to. It hurts.”
Mustangs quarterback Chris Brown was intercepted for the second time in the final seconds to end Cal Poly’s hopes of a miracle finish. Brown was intercepted at the goal line to deny a touchdown in the first half.
After the Mustangs defense skunked Portland State until it didn’t matter anymore in last week’s blowout victory in the home-opener, the Cal Poly defense allowed 513 yards of offense to Northern Arizona.
The defensive performance left Walsh frustrated, even though the offense put up 485 yards of its own, including 214 through the air.
“I think we played hard,” Walsh said. “I want to make sure I say that. I just don’t think we played extremely well on the defensive side of the ball, and it’s disappointing after last week. The outcome of the game was so opposite as far as how we played.
“I have to give them credit. They’re a multiple offense, and I think they did a good job of keeping us off balance formationally and did a good job of making us guess.”
Cal Poly scored first, and even though Northern Arizona had a 17-14 advantage in the second quarter, the Mustangs quickly retook the lead before the half and ran for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third for a two-score lead that provided some comfort.
As momentum started to shift later in the third, Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers was banking on the 6,680-foot altitude of the Walkup Skydome to help wear down Cal Poly.
That’s one reason Souers was unafraid to punt away so late in the game. The Mustangs might have only needed one first down to win the game, but the thin air was taking its toll, too.
“When you’re at altitude, it’s tough,” Souers said. “It wears out your body, and part of what we try to do is wear our opponents down. We were getting out-executed throughout most of the game, their offense against our defense. About the only chance we had is that we had more numbers and that we keep grinding until we get to the fourth quarter, and hopefully, we’re able to make some plays.”
Cartwright passed for 279 yards and four touchdowns. Jahn ran for 103 yards and caught seven passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. Ify Umodu had three catches for 38 yards, including touchdowns to cap back-to-back possessions that turned a 28-17 Cal Poly lead into a 31-28 Lumberjacks advantage by the end of the third quarter.
Brown led Cal Poly with 91 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He was 10-of-17 passing for 214 yards and a 5-yard touchdown pass to Hines. Hines finished with five catches for a career-high 117 yards. Senior fullback Brandon Howe had 76 rushing yards and a 1-yard touchdown plunge.
Obviously, the most important number for the Mustangs is a 0-1 start in conference play. In each of the past two seasons, the winner of this matchup has gone on to the playoffs while the loser has been eliminated.
It’s too early to make those kinds of declarations this season, but even more urgency is piling up for Cal Poly.
“It hurts,” Hines said, “but we’ve just got to get back on Monday and get ready to grind. We can’t go into conference with two loses. We’ve got to finish it out, win out and win the rest of these conference games to keep our hopes alive and win the Big Sky.”