HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Until its final possession, the Cal Poly football team looked to be just a step behind Sam Houston State on Saturday night.
Then, with 1:44 to go in the game, Ryan Taylor hit sophomore wide receiver Willie Tucker on a 50-yard double-reverse touchdown pass, helping cut the Bearkats’ lead to just two points — their slimmest since the second quarter.
But the ensuing onside kick was recovered by Sam Houston State, and the Bearkats eliminated Cal Poly from the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs (FCS) with an 18-16 victory over the Mustangs in a second-round matchup in Huntsville, Texas.
“The effort we played with tonight was phenomenal,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “I think it was two good football teams that battled to the end.”
The Mustangs committed four first-half turnovers, and despite gaining 224 yards on the ground against the No. 3 rushing defense in the FCS, couldn’t find the finishing magic late in fourth quarter.
The Mustangs held Sam Houston State to just 16 passing yards in the first half and 241 total yards for the game, pretty good according to Walsh considering the Bearkats entered the game as the highest-scoring team in the FCS.
“That’s by far the best defensive football game we’ve played all year,” Walsh said.
But Cal Poly’s turnovers in the opening half had the Mustangs digging out of their own hole early.
Senior quarterback Andre Broadous accounted for two of those on the day — one fumble and an interception — before finishing with 113 yards on 6 of 12 passing.
“It was real emotional for us,” Broadous. “We expect to come out here and win, and everybody played hard. That’s all you can ask for.”
But Broadous wasn’t the only one making mistakes. After a scoreless first quarter, The Bearkats got on the board in the opening two minutes of the second frame with a safety. Kicker Bobby Zalud’s punt was blocked with 13:25 to go in the first half, but the ball rolled to the back of the endzone and out after Sam Houston State’s Robert Shaw couldn’t get a handle on it, resulting in a 2-0 Bearkats lead.
Later in the half, a muffed punt by Chris Nicholls just before the break gave the Bearkats possession on Cal Poly’s 7-yard line, but the Mustangs defense and several offensive penalties held Sam Houston State to just a field goal.
Despite the turnovers, however, Cal Poly was only down 8-0 at the break.
Running back Kristaan Ivory gave the Mustangs a boost early in the second half, ripping off the longest run of the game for Cal Poly, a 46-yarder, that put Cal Poly on the Bearkats’ 18-yard line. The Mustangs then settled for a field goal for their first points of the afternoon, despite first and goal from the 4-yard line.
They settled for two more field goals on their next two scoring drives after, punching deep into Bearkats territory on each.
Such was the story for much of the game.
“It was definitely frustrating to work hard to get down there and get three points,” Broadous said. “They had a good scheme against our option.”
Following both of Zalud’s field goals, the Bearkats answered. Two late hit penalties by the Cal Poly defense extended the Bearkats’ lone touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Sam Houston State made the Mustangs pay, as quarterback Brian Bell threw an 18-yard touchdown pass — the game’s first six-point score — to Keshawn Hill.
The mustangs added a field goal and Taylor’s touchdown down the stretch, but it didn’t prove to be enough.
“I didn’t think they were better than us, I didn’t think they were worse,” Tucker said. “It was a good fight. They were obviously the better team tonight coming out with a victory. I would definitely say everybody played with 100 percent. I’ve never seen our defense play with that much tenacity.”
Tucker finished with six catches for 152 yards as the Mustangs’ leading receiver on the night.
He and the Mustangs finish the season with a 9-3 record.