Evaluating the Cal Poly football team’s season through the lens of wins and losses could be equal parts frustrating and confusing for Mustangs players, coaches and fans alike.
A team that was ranked as high as No. 17 in the country in mid-September has lost six of its past seven games, many in puzzling fashion. During its current three-game skid, Cal Poly has been in position to beat three consecutive top-25 teams, only to have a play or two swing the outcome.
The Mustangs had three-time defending Big Sky Conference champion and No. 7-ranked Eastern Washington on the ropes before falling 42-41 in its only overtime game of the season.
The following week against No. 14 Portland State, the Mustangs’ third-quarter lead slipped away and Jonathan Gonzalez made a game-winning 27-yard field goal to smother Cal Poly’s upset bid. That night, the Vikings forced five Mustangs fumbles, recovering four and taking advantage of each extra opportunity.
Facing No. 24 Southern Utah and a mild crowd of 4,506 on Saturday afternoon at Eccles Stadium, Cal Poly turned the ball over six times — five fumbles, one interception — en route to a 17-point setback. Giving the league-leading Thunderbirds six extra possessions more than made up for the margin of victory, especially considering three of those fumbles were returned for touchdowns.
“I’ve got a pretty frustrated team right now and they probably should be,” seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “We’re all frustrated with the way we’re losing. I think if you get outplayed, that’s one thing.
“Put the ball on the ground and give points away, you know, it’s not going to be an easy thing for us to deal with as the game goes on.”
Since Walsh took over at Cal Poly in 2009, the Mustangs have averaged 10.3 fumbles lost per season. That’s a pretty remarkable number for a team that runs the ball on more than 85 percent of its plays from scrimmage.
In its past two games against Portland State and Southern Utah, Cal Poly has piled up 975 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on 155 attempts. Fumbles have been lost on nine of those 155 plays, or 0.06 percent of the time a Mustang carries the ball. The percentages might seem insignificant, but the timing of those plays has been anything but.
“We work every day on ball handling,” Walsh said. “I hate to say, as much as the execution on offense is important, the ball possession is the most important part of our offense.”
Two possessions during Saturday’s game against the Thunderbirds illustrate this point.
Trailing 33-31 midway through the third quarter, Cal Poly’s defense forced a three-and-out, giving the Chris Brown-led offense a chance to come all the way back from an early 17-point deficit.
Five plays later, the Mustangs were on the move inside Southern Utah territory. On the ensuing play, linebacker Mike Needham forced a fumble, picked it up and scampered 57 yards for a touchdown — his second of the game.
It was more of the same on Cal Poly’s next possession. Seven straight running plays had the Mustangs inside Southern Utah’s 40-yard line, the Thunderbirds struggling to consistently coral the Mustangs. One play later, James Cowser scooped up a fumble and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.
It was a microcosm of Cal Poly’s entire season, really. Take seven steps forward, only to miss the final stair on the way up and come tumbling back down. And in this conference — where only four of the 13 teams have winning Big Sky records — there’s always someone ready cash in on your misfortune.
It’s also easy to overlook how well the Mustangs played during their other 87 offensive plays that weren’t turnovers. Four players rushed for more than 100 yards, including a breakout four-touchdown effort from sophomore Kyle Lewis. Lewis, DJ Peluso and Jared Mohamed all surpassed the 100-yard mark for the first time in their careers against Southern Utah.
Cal Poly also picked up 12 more first downs, ran 29 more plays, converted on all five trips to the red zone and held a commanding 13-minute advantage in time of possession.
“I think we did some really good things on both sides of the ball,” Walsh said, “but unfortunately we didn’t do enough.”