Despite another 100-yard game from junior fullback Joe Protheroe, the no. 21 Mustangs were upset by the no. 24 University of San Diego Toreros in the opening round of the NCAA FCS Division I playoffs Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. With the victory, the Toreros picked up their first win in San Luis Obispo and became the first team from the Pioneer Football League to ever win a playoff game.
The Mustangs managed to keep the game close after falling behind early, but the Toreros’ timely defense and steady rushing attack ultimately proved to be too much for the Mustangs. Senior running back Jonah Hodges led the way for the Toreros as he carved through the Mustangs’ defense for three touchdowns and 171 yards rushing on a very slick, muddy field that was soaked by rain for hours before kickoff.
“It was rough out there,” Hodges said. “I think our [offensive] line did a great job of getting me a little space and I think that the defense had a hard time cutting. We just wanted to go out there and chip away.”
Hodges made his presence known from the very beginning of the game as he ripped through the defense for a 46-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage. After two successful pass plays put the Toreros inside the Mustangs’ 10-yard line, Hodges squeaked past two Mustangs on his way to the end zone to put San Diego up 7-0 early in the first quarter.
After the Mustangs went three and out on their first possession, they got a lucky break as junior defensive back Jerek Rosales recovered a fumble by Toreros’ tight end Ross Dwelley at the Mustangs’ two-yard line.
Two plays later, however, the Mustangs squandered their chance on Protheroe’s fumble that was recovered by the Toreros at the Mustangs’ eight-yard line. On the next play, San Diego quarterback Anthony Lawrence found wide receiver Justin Priest on a post route in the back corner of the end zone to put the Toreros up 14-0 with just under seven minutes to play in the first quarter.
“I think they just played us well on the perimeter,” Protheroe said. “I’m not going to blame it on the weather conditions. You gotta be able to play through it.”
For the rest of the first half, the Mustangs’ usually high-powered offense continued to sputter, only mustering 195 yards of total offense and converting 5 of 13 chances on third down in the game. The Toreros, however, amassed 473 yards of total offense and converted 11 of 19 attempts on third down.
“That really did help our defense, our offense taking the ball and moving it even though they didn’t score,” Toreros’ head coach Dale Lindsey said. “They kept the defense off balance, let us rest.”
Redshirt freshman cornerback Kitu Humphrey helped keep Cal Poly close with an interception late in the second quarter to put the Mustangs just outside of the Toreros’ red zone. After quarterback Dano Graves completed a 12-yard pass to convert on a key fourth down, Protheroe hammered in a seven-yard touchdown run to put the Mustangs on the scoreboard just before halftime.
After the break, Mustangs’ wide receiver J.J. Koski nearly scored on the opening kickoff of the second half, taking the ball 85 yards to the Toreros’ seven-yard line. Protheroe finished the job on the first play of the half from scrimmage, scoring on a seven yard run up the middle to tie the game at 14 a piece.
The Toreros went on to score two unanswered touchdowns with Hodges and Lawrence doing most of the heavy lifting on offense. With just over eight minutes left in the game, the Mustangs defense once again gave them new life. Senior defensive lineman Kelly Shepard intercepted Lawrence in the flat and took it 63 yards to the house, cutting the Toreros’ lead to seven. Shepard’s pick-six was the first time the Mustangs’ defense had scored a touchdown since Nick Dzubnar scored after an interception against Northern Arizona in 2012.
After the Mustangs made an impressive stand on the Toreros’ next possession to get the ball back to their offense, Protheroe fumbled for the second time in the game. The Toreros managed to scoop up the fumble and Lawrence proceeded to drive them down the field with Hodges finishing the drive off. Hodges’ third score of the day put the Toreros up 35-21 with just under two and a half minutes left to play, putting the game out of reach for the Mustangs.
“They deserve all the credit, they totally outplayed us,” Mustangs’ head coach Tim Walsh said. “Our horizontal game is a big part of who we are, but they did a good job defending it from what it looked like out on the field, but I also think the field had a little bit to do with it too. I’m not going to use the field as an excuse but it was a factor for us.”
The victory advances the Toreros to the second round in Fargo, North Dakota as they face the reigning champion North Dakota State next Saturday.