Cal Poly football fans got to see arguably the best version of the 2015 Mustangs on Saturday night at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Down only one starter — defensive end Logan Mayes — for the first time in recent weeks, Cal Poly built an early lead, dominated the line of scrimmage and avoided the late miscues that have often proven costly.
By the time the final whistle blew, it was Cal Poly 36, Sacramento State 14. A Mustangs team plagued by turnovers against Portland State and Southern Utah never stumbled, earning its first victory in more than a month.
“Extremely pleased for our players, I think they really do deserve it,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “I think we have a good football team that’s kind of put ourselves behind the eight ball because of the mistakes that we’ve made.”
In improving to 3-6 overall and 2-4 in the Big Sky Conference, Cal Poly piled up 393 rushing yards and created a few extra opportunities with Chris Brown in the passing game. After the fifth-year senior connected with Jordan Hines and Kyle Lewis on first-half touchdown passes, the Mustangs seemed to settle into their usual groove running the football.
Cal Poly has been so prolific with its triple-option offense this season that Saturday’s 393 rushing yards were the lowest total since a 45-28 setback at Montana State in September. In the four games since that loss at Bobcat Stadium, the Mustangs have rushed for at least 420 yards in every contest.
“Overall, we did control the line of scrimmage and we knew that we might have to make some plays in the pass game,” Walsh said. “It’s good to see that, too. I think it’s good for all those guys to be able to get catches and meaningful catches.”
The Hornets’ defense, anchored by senior linebacker Darnell Sankey, the leading tackler in the Big Sky with 125 stops this season, gave up 26 straight points to start the game and forced Cal Poly to call on punter Stephen Pyle only once.
Eight Mustangs were given multiple carries, with sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe rushing a team-high 17 times for 73 yards and one touchdown. Brown added 49 yards on 14 attempts and was sacked once for a loss of 13 yards. Jared Mohamed (nine carries, 67 yards) and Kori Garcia (seven carries, 48 yards) also were effective during their limited reps.
Sophomore Reagan Enger, a bruising 6-foot-3, 225-pound tight end, saw extended time at fullback for the first time this season. He entered Saturday’s game with five career carries, three of those coming in mop-up duty against Idaho State last month.
Enger broke off a 70-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, showing the kind of athleticism that likely convinced the coaching staff he’s capable of contributing to the successful running game. The Bakersfield native finished the game with 91 yards on six carries.
“We have so many guys that we think are good football players who can run the football that it’s hard to get them all the amount of touches you want to get them,” Walsh said. “But I would say that all the positions ran the ball very well, whether it’s our ‘S,’ our ‘W,’ or our ‘H,’ they all ran the ball well.”
Brown, who missed almost three full weeks recovering from an injury against Eastern Washington, left the game with a leg injury late in the third quarter and did not return. The senior is less than 140 yards away from his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Walsh said Brown likely could have come back in the game if the stakes were higher, and he doesn’t expect him to miss any more time this season.
“He isn’t going to miss anymore,” Walsh said. “That’s basically what he said to me, ‘I’m playing.’ He’s a warrior and he always has been here and he wants to finish his career and he wants the horseshoe back.”
The horseshoe, of course, refers to Cal Poly’s rivalry game next Saturday at UC Davis.
The Aggies (1-8, 1-5 Big Sky) sit at the bottom of the conference standings, the same place they were a season ago when UC Davis came to San Luis Obispo and knocked the Mustangs out of the FCS playoff conversation.
No one on the Cal Poly roster has forgotten that loss, and the team’s slogan on their practice shirts reads, “Faceless except for Davis.” Walsh said the coaching staff tried to put more emphasis on the Battle of the Golden Horseshoe, saying the Aggies “have taken it a little bit more seriously then we have at certain times.”
“It was bad ending for our seniors last year and just for the season period,” leading tackler Tu’uta Inoke added. “We want to go to Davis and get the horseshoe and bring it back here to San Luis. It’s a big game, a big rivalry, so we’re all living up to the tradition.”