Playing without two of its starters against the 24th-ranked team in the country Saturday afternoon, Cal Poly’s defense turned in one of its most resilient performances of the past month.
With senior middle linebacker Tu’uta Inoke and senior defensive end Logan Mayes not making the trip because of undisclosed injuries, the Mustangs returned to their traditional 4-3 defensive front in hopes of making up for those key absences.
The 6-foot-2, 248-pound Inoke has been the anchor of Cal Poly’s improving defense, piling up a team-high 66 tackles and leading the Big Sky Conference with four forced fumbles.
In his place, fellow senior Burton De Koning turned in his best statistical performance of the season. Entering Saturday’s contest, De Koning ranked fourth on the team with 45 tackles, including a season-high six stops against Montana and Portland State.
He doubled that total in the first half alone against Southern Utah, and finished with a career-high 16 tackles. Fellow linebackers R.J. Mazolewski (10 tackles) and Joseph Gigantino (eight) played well against a red-hot team that hadn’t been in a competitive game since the second week of the season.
Big-Sky leading Southern Utah, which is tied with Eastern Washington at 5-0 in the conference, was held to 391 total yards on 205 passing and 186 rushing. Senior quarterback Ammon Olsen completed 18 of 31 passes and two touchdowns, and Justin Brown rushed for a team-high 53 yards in the victory.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the battle,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “Just not proud of the execution on offense, and defensively we’re getting better. We’re playing better at times. But still too many long drives for touchdowns.”
Tattered running backs press on
Having already played through a nagging shoulder injury for most of the season, junior running back Kori Garcia appeared to suffer an ankle injury on the fourth play of the game. After rushing for no gain, Garcia stayed down on the field for several minutes and was helped to the sideline by team trainers.
Garcia rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and had settled into a nice rhythm over the past month. Before being injured Saturday, Garcia had rushed for more than 100 yards in three of Cal Poly’s past four games.
The Los Angeles native returned to the game with his ankle heavily taped and contributed 45 yards on seven carries. Fellow starting slotback DJ Peluso chipped in a career-high 111 yards on 12 carries in a gritty effort.
“Both those guys played hurt today — really probably shouldn’t have played — and both of them played extremely physical football,” Walsh said.
Mustangs return home next week
Cal Poly will host Sacramento State at 6:05 p.m. next Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The Hornets (2-6, 1-4 Big Sky) are coming off a bye week after handily defeating Idaho State last week.
That 38-13 victory ended Sacramento State’s six-game losing streak, including a 44-0 setback against Southern Utah back on Oct. 17.