An uneven Cal Poly football season came to an underwhelming close Saturday night.
Turnovers led to an early three-touchdown deficit, and the Mustangs never recovered on the way to a 45-21 season-ending loss to visiting North Dakota at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Facing the No. 1-ranked run defense in the Big Sky Conference, Cal Poly fell behind 35-0 before scoring its first touchdown midway through the third quarter. The Fighting Hawks held the Mustangs to a season-low 211 yards rushing and kept their hopes of being selected for the 24-team FCS playoffs alive.
“They came out with a different intensity than we came out with,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “I don’t think there’s any question.”
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Cal Poly went on to break the school and Big Sky records for rushing yards in a season for the second consecutive year. The Mustangs finished their 11-game schedule with 4,260 yards on the ground, topping the mark of 4,107 set in 2014.
What it means: Cal Poly finished an up-and-down season with a 4-7 record overall and a 3-5 mark in the Big Sky Conference. The four wins match the fewest in Walsh’s seven-year tenure, set during his first year in San Luis Obispo in 2009.
The Mustangs also bid farewell to 18 seniors Saturday night, 15 of them having spent five years in the program.
Meanwhile, North Dakota will await its postseason fate until Sunday morning, when the FCS releases its playoff bracket. The Fighting Hawks (7-4, 5-3 Big Sky) would need an at-large bid to make the postseason for the first time since moving up to Division I.
North Dakota controlled the line of scrimmage and used a variety of defense fronts against Cal Poly’s triple-option offense, something most teams haven’t been able to do this season.
“I think we got a little bit confused and it got us off base,” Walsh said. “I don’t think the players felt comfortable ever in our offense. That was really probably the first time this year that we didn’t feel comfortable.”
How it happened: Sophomore quarterback Keaton Studsrud efficiently directed the UND offense to a 28-0 lead at halftime. Entering Saturday’s contest, Studsrud was ranked 10th in the Big Sky with 125.9 passing yards per game.
He surpassed that mark in the first half and finished one of his best games of the year 17 of 20 for 255 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried the ball six times for 29 more yards.
Big Sky rushing leader John Santiago showed why he’s ranked among the best running backs in the FCS. The speedy true freshman gashed the Mustangs defense for 117 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. It was Santiago’s eighth straight 100-yard rushing game against Big Sky opponents.
Brown’s curtain call: Playing in the final game of his standout career, senior quarterback Chris Brown ran hard to the final whistle. A short run in the second quarter put Brown over 3,000 yards rushing for his career, becoming the fifth Mustang in school history to achieve that mark.
He finished the game with 63 yards rushing on 21 carries and scored two touchdowns on the ground. Brown also passed for 211 yards — his second 100-yard performance of the season — giving him more than 3,000 for his career.
Brown is one of three active players in the FCS with 3,000 yards rushing and passing in career.
“He really has a strong future ahead of him regardless of whether it’s football or not because of who he is,” Walsh said.