Cal Poly receiver Dominique Johnson (9),  hauled in a single-game record five touchdowns against South Dakota. Photo by Nick Camacho- Mustang Daily
Cal Poly receiver Dominique Johnson (9), hauled in a single-game record five touchdowns against South Dakota. Photo by Nick Camacho- Mustang Daily

South Dakota (5-5, 2-2 Great West) held off a 13-point fourth-quarter rally by Cal Poly (4-6, 1-3) to defeat the Mustangs 50-48 on Saturday.

After Cal Poly fell to as large as a 23-point deficit, twice, the Mustangs mounted a comeback that left them 3 points shy of a victory.

With 20 seconds left in the game, trailing 42-50, Cal Poly quarterback Tony Smith lofted a 42-yard bomb to the left corner of the end zone. The pass was tipped by a South Dakota defender and then caught by Dominique Johnson to put the Mustangs within two points of tying the game.

On the two-point conversion Cal Poly put the game in Smith’s hands, resulting in a tipped incomplete pass.

“A defensive player made a good play, you got to tip your hat off to them — they sniffed it out,” Smith said.

The failed conversion left Cal Poly with one more chance.

After recovering the ensuing onside kick with 18 ticks left on the clock, the Mustangs couldn’t punch in the final blow, marking their first losing season since 2002.

“(We) were just trying to pull (the game out) and send our seniors out of this stadium with a victory, but we came out with the short end,”  Johnson said.

Cal Poly players Jon Hall, Jono Grayson, Ryan Shotwell, Carlton Gillespie and Xavier Gardener were among the 10 seniors who will remember a loss during their last bout  at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.

Cal Poly’s defense struggled to stop the South Dakota offense for most of the game. The first punt by South Dakota didn’t surface until the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. South Dakota held eight consecutive scoring drives.

The offensive showcase wasn’t one-sided. Cal Poly’s 533-yard outburst featured many notable connections between Smith and Johnson, reminiscent of last season’s offensive threats.

Johnson finished the game with 13 catches for 273 yards and five touchdowns. He set a school record for most touchdown receptions, one more than the four-touchdown game Ramses Barden had against Weber State in 2007.

Johnson had just one other touchdown reception all season.

“I’ve been waiting for our opportunities all year and they finally came,” Johnson said.

Smith aired out 407 yards and six touchdowns, tying the school record set by Daly against Weber State also in 2007.

Smith also tallied career highs in passing yardage and pass attempts.

Overall, the teams combined for two points shy of 100 points, the highest point total since last year’s game against Southern Utah when both teams combined for 110 points. Cal Poly’s defense allowed its highest point total since 2002, when UC Davis posted 62 points.

The teams combined for 1,086 yards of total offense combined.

The bulk of both team’s offense came in the third quarter; the two teams were able to mount 42 points total, with six touchdowns in 13 minutes.

“We played probably our best game on offense (all season),” head coach Tim Walsh said. “That’s all I can ask our football team.”

In his final game as a collegiate athlete, Coyote quarterback Noah Shepard put forth arguably his most memorable performance in his career at South Dakota against the Cal Poly’s secondary.

“We did what we wanted to do, we got out to a fast start,” Shepard said. “I felt whatever they threw at us, we (could) counteract it … It’s definitely a good way to go out.”

Shepard passed for 238 yards and two scores in the first half.

On top of the senior’s departing performance, the Mustangs added 12 penalties for 72 yards to combine with the already hefty offensive numbers South Dakota accumulated.

With its first loss inside Alex G. Spanos stadium all year, Cal Poly will finish last in the Great West and will end its six consecutive winning season streak.

“I’m not pleased with it and (we’re) going to have to deal with it, but that’s life,” Walsh said. “You’re going to have pick yourself up sometimes when you’re knocked down — and we’re knocked down.”

Next week the Mustangs will square off against Weber State in the final game of the 2009 season. Weber State ended Cal Poly’s season in the first round of the playoffs last season.

Kick-off is set for 11:05 a.m. Saturday.

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