The Cal Poly football team traveled through four states, broke two school records, saw weather from sun to snow and won its first ever Division I-AA playoff game all in 36 hours this weekend.
The Mustangs beat the Montana Grizzlies 35-21 on Saturday advancing to the quarterfinals of playoffs against Texas State. This game marks the first time Cal Poly has ever beaten Montana, who the Mustangs lost to earlier this season.
“It was a hard fought game and like all hard fought games, turnovers and special teams made the difference,” coach Rich Ellerson said.
The team met Friday morning at Cal Poly to start its trek to Missoula, Mont. The team split into offensive and defensive squads before getting onto two buses headed for the Santa Maria airport.
Before leaving the campus, the entire team walked to the end of Mustang Stadium and congregated at the flagpole on the northern end of the field. The players huddled around in a circle kneeling. Someone yelled “one, two, three” and the entire team chanted “Stick together.” They got up and quietly got onto the buses.
Once on the plane in Santa Maria, the team met its first challenge. Weather conditions were too bad to land in Missoula and the plane was going to land in Spokane, Wash. The team would then be bused the 200 miles across the top of Idaho to Montana.
The plane landed in Spokane, and after a two-hour wait in the airport for the buses, the three-hour drive across three states began.
Once in Idaho the first evidence of the weather began to show. Going over mountain passes more and more snow appeared on the side of the road and eventually it covered the road.
The team finally made it to Missoula, where the temperature was in the low 30s, and went to its hotel. It was a few hours later than they had expected, but they waited with anticipating for the next day’s game.
At the stadium, Saturday morning workers used large scrappers to clear the field of the snow that had been dropped the night before.
The Grizzlies’ stadium is famous for its atmosphere. Before the game had begun, five skydivers had sailed onto the field, a canon fired, and a person in a bear costume drove onto the field on an ATV.
The Grizzlies’ team came out of a 15-foot tall inflatable helmet.
Coach Ellerson said that his team did not get caught up in the environment; their number one focus was the team.
“I feel as though having been here a month ago everyone understood what we were up against,” Ellerson said.
The game kicked off in front of 16,000 fans at noon. The snow, which was sporadic during pre-game, had stopped for the game, but it was still 36 degrees outside.
The game started slowly for both teams until linebacker Chris Gocong sacked the Grizzlies starting quarterback Cole Bergquist for a loss of 8 yards. The Mustangs only had one sack in their first meeting with Grizzlies a month ago, and Gocong had his only game without a sack.
Most of the first half was a battle of running backs between Cal Poly’s James Noble and Montana’s Lex Hilliard. Noble was consistently running up the middle, which Montana said they hoped to stop.
Noble’s first touchdown was a three-yard run up the middle, but Montana responded with a long drive down the field. Hilliard got a short touchdown of his own to tie the game at seven ending the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Noble had his first fumble of the day, losing the ball on the Grizzlies’ 28-yard line. Noble jumped on the ball trying to recover it but lost it to linebacker Shane MacIntyre. The Grizzlies could not capitalize on the turnover though, having to punt it away.
Cal Poly’s special team stayed consistent during the game. Kicker Nick Coromelas made all of his extra points and his only mistake came in the second quarter during a punt. Long snapper Kevin Van Gorder snapped the ball over the head of punter Tim Chicoine in the second quarter. Chicone recovered the ball and heaved it forward for an incomplete pass.
Montana then took over on downs on Cal Poly’s 28-yard line and Lex Hilliard ran it 18 yards for his second touchdown of the game, putting Montana in the lead for the only time during the game at 14- 7.
Defensive end Matt Chachere forced Montana running back JR Waller to fumble, which was recovered by Cornerback Randy Samuel on the Grizzlies’ 14-yard line. Two plays later Noble got his second touchdown with a four-yard run.
Until late in the second quarter, Cal Poly’s passing game was somewhat non-existent. But with about three minutes left in the half, redshirt freshman Matt Brennan aired one out to Ramses Barden who pulled it down in the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown pass. With the extra point, Cal Poly went back in the lead 21-14. The half would end that way.
At the half, Noble had 74 yards and two touchdowns, Brennan had 86 yards passing and one touchdown, and 46 yards rushing, Barden had 63 yards receiving and one touchdown.
In the first half, Cal Poly dominated the Grizzlies with 13 first downs as opposed to six for Montana, maintaining possession 18 minutes.
As the second half got underway, Cal Poly received the ball, quickly moving it down the field where Noble would run in it in for a 5-yard field goal.
After Montana was forced to punt, Cal Poly got the ball back on its own 48-yard line. Noble fumbled the ball on third and two but recovered it. Cal Poly attempted a fourth and short first down push at the Montana 32 but did not get the first down.
Montana took over on downs and on third and 12, Bergquist gave a short shovel pass up the middle to Hilliard, who took the ball 66 yards for a Montana touchdown. Linebacker Kyle Shotwell said after the game that he was to blame for the long touchdown.
“I’m going to get yelled at for that one,” Shotwell said.
Noble and fullback Adam George finished out the game running out the clock. Noble ran in a 35-yard touchdown, his fourth of the day. George marked a personal season high for carries and yards, something coach Bobby Hauck of Montana thought made a big difference in the game.
“I think the fullback (George) was the difference in the game,” Hauck said.
But it was Noble with 212 yards and four touchdowns who led the Mustang’s offense.
“Having a running back like Noble makes my job that much easier,” Brennan said. “Having a running back like James is heaven.”
Noble now has 1,488 yards for the season, breaking the old school record of 1,424 yards set by Louis Jackson during the 1980 season. Noble’s 15 rushing touchdowns this season ties the mark established by Gary Davis in 1975.
Brennan was the second leading rusher of the game with 65 yards. The freshman quarterback also had 130 yards passing with one touchdown.
As the seconds ran down the sun began to shine on the field for the first time all day, and the game ended with Cal Poly victory.
After the game Cal Poly congregated in front of the Cal Poly fans who had made the long trip, and sang the fight song.
Getting Home and the Road Ahead
After the game, Cal Poly flew out of Missoula and back to Santa Maria. As the buses pulled onto campus almost exactly 36 hours after they had left there was a small group of fans waiting for the team with signs and balloons cheering as players exited the buses.
With the first round behind them, Cal Poly will now begin preparations for the next game of the playoffs on Saturday, Dec. 3 against Texas State, a winner over Georgia Southern, 50-35, Saturday.
Cal poly will travel to San Marcos to play the Bobcats Kickoff is at 1 p.m. pacific time, and will be televised on ESPN2.