The Cal Poly football team was one of the better programs in the country and ranked among the best in the Big Sky Conference in penalties before Saturday’s 42-39 victory over Southern Utah.
In that game, however, the Mustangs (2-3, 1-1 Big Sky) got flagged 10 times for a whopping 13.1 yards per penalty. Eight of those 10 penalties were 15-yarders.
“That was addressed and addressed quite firmly on Monday,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, “and hopefully, our players got the message that that’s not going to be who we are. And we haven’t been. So, we’re not going to start that.”
Walsh is right. Cal Poly was second in the Big Sky in penalties coming in and ranked 27th in the national in penalties per game. The Mustangs were averaging just 5.5 penalties per game at just 8.2 yards per penalty in the first four games.
Then came Saturday.
There were two personal fouls, two pass interference penalties, two illegal blocks, one facemask and one for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Going into this week’s game at Weber State (0-5, 0-2 Big Sky), Cal Poly dropped to fifth in the Big Sky in penalties per game and 45th in the FCS, upping its average to 6.4.
Defensively, two of Saturday’s penalties came on third down, including the facemask by sophomore defensive end Josh Letuligasenoa, who also had an earlier personal foul.
“Penalties, they don’t help you at all,” Mustangs senior linebacker Nick Dzubnar said after the game. “You want to be in the best situation you can be in. When it’s third-and-long, and you give them a first down, it takes it out of you. It’s a deflater.
“Whether it’s unsportsmanlike, facemasking, stuff like that, it’s going to kill drives. Especially when its third-and-long and you get penalties like that, it’s going to burn your momentum, and it did.”
And not just on defense either.
An illegal block by right guard Billy Shipman and a clipping penalty against left guard Nick Enriquez came on the same drive midway though the fourth quarter. The unsportsmanlike penalty on senior slotback Kenny Mitchell for stepping over Southern Utah’s punt returner after the whistle helped set the Thunderbirds up at their own 35-yard line.
Southern Utah needed just eight plays to go 65 yards and cut Cal Poly’s lead to four while junior cornerback Karlton Dennis was called for his second pass interference of the game on the ensuing drive.
The one saving grace was that Southern Utah was flagged twice for personal fouls on the final possession of the game, allowing the Mustangs to pick up enough first downs to drain the clock and preserve the victory.
It seemed both teams found themselves embittered by the end of the game.
“There probably was some frustration, too, and frustration leads frustrated play,” Walsh said. “I was really disappointed in the amount of penalties we had because I told the team after the game, take the penalties out of the game, and maybe we do win a little bit easier. I’m pretty sure we would.”