Throughout Tim Walsh’s seven-year tenure coaching the Cal Poly football team, the Mustangs have consistently been among the country’s best teams when it comes to limiting turnovers.
That key trademark of a program likely to lead the FCS in rushing for the third consecutive season has gone by the wayside in the past two weeks, leaving Cal Poly looking up at the rest of the Big Sky Conference to start November.
The Mustangs turned the ball over six times — five fumbles, one interception — en route to a 54-37 loss at 24th-ranked Southern Utah on Saturday afternoon at Eccles Coliseum. Three of the fumbles were returned for touchdowns, and a fourth led directly to the Thunderbirds’ first score of the game.
Over the past eight quarters, Cal Poly (2-6, 1-4 Big Sky) has fumbled 12 times and lost nine of them. Before last week’s home loss against Portland State, the Mustangs had lost only two fumbles through their first six games.
“I’ve never coached a team that beats itself as much as we’ve beat ourselves the last three games,” Walsh said. “We could easily be 4-1 right now in the Big Sky — easily.”
Spotting a solid Southern Utah team 21 points made life difficult for Cal Poly, which rushed for 508 yards and scored five times on the ground. Sophomore running back Kyle Lewis spearheaded the Mustangs’ attack and finished with 121 yards on 11 carries and scored four touchdowns — all career highs.
Lewis was one of four Cal Poly players that surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark against a Thunderbirds defense that ranks among the best in the Big Sky Conference. Sophomore fullback Jared Mohamed, starting in place of the injured Joe Protheroe, ran for a career-best 124 yards on 25 carries.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Brown returned from an undisclosed injury to rush for 109 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. Brown also completed 6 of 10 passes for 47 yards and was intercepted late in the fourth quarter.
Junior DJ Peluso also ran for more than 100 yards for the first time this season. He finished the game with 111 yards on 12 carries, a staggering 9.3-yard average.
“I thought we executed 90 percent of the time like you would draw it up,” Walsh said. “But that 10 percent, five fumbles, that’s not going to win games. When we have to play from behind like that the last four or five minutes, that’s way out of our deal.”
Trailing 33-24 to start the second half, Brown directed a seven-play, 57-yard drive that ended when the quarterback scored his team-leading 10th rushing touchdown of the season from 15 yards out.
With an opportunity to take the lead on the ensuing possession, Mohamed was stripped at the line of scrimmage and the ball landed squarely in linebacker Mike Needham’s hands.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Needham returned the ball 57 yards for his second touchdown of the game, staking Southern Utah to a 40-31 lead to start the fourth quarter. Needham also made a game-high 20 tackles, one of four Thunderbirds with 10 or more stops.
The Southern Utah defense went on to score its third touchdown on the first play of the final period, when senior defensive end James Cowser picked up a fumble and went 55 yards to the end zone.
“The ball falls right into his hands and there’s no one to tackle him,” Walsh said. “We’ve been the best team in the nation in ball handling the last couple years, and the last couple weeks, maybe the worst.”
One week removed from losing four fumbles at home against Portland State, Cal Poly fumbled twice early in the first half and fell behind 17-3. Needham recovered the second fumble and returned it 9 yards for a touchdown and a 14-point lead on the first play of the second quarter.
The Mustangs were quick to respond, however, and outscored the Thunderbirds over the remainder of the first half. Lewis continually had success running sweeps to the right side, scoring on runs of 7, 6 and 41 yards in the second quarter alone.
Cal Poly rushed for 311 of its 535 yards in the first half. Before Saturday’s game, the Thunderbirds (6-2, 5-0 Big Sky) had not allowed a touchdown in their first four Big Sky Conference games, a streak that began back on Sept. 19 against Northern Colorado.
“There’s some positives, but it doesn’t help our record,” Walsh said. “We’re still 2-6 and we’ve got to take ownership of that.”