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One team was using the game as playoff tune-up. The other was playing for pride.
In a season of ups and downs, the Cal Poly football team made a statement on Saturday night in San Diego. And the Mustangs did so against a squad that had already clinched its postseason berth via an automatic qualifier spot.
The Mustangs (7-5) used a trio of touchdowns from junior backup quarterback Dano Graves and suffocating defense to beat non-scholarship San Diego 34-3 in their final regular season game.
“From where we were to where we are, I think we played a lot of really good football,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “To me, we’re one of the best teams in the country.”
The Toreros (9-2) entered the matchup riding an emotional high. The Mustangs entered riding the emotional opposite.
San Diego qualified for the school’s first trip to the NCAA Division I Football Playoffs after winning the Pioneer Football League (PFL) title last weekend.
Sophomore quarterback Keith Williams threw a 44-yard Hail Mary to win the game over Valparaiso and clinch the Toreros’ inaugural playoff berth. Jacksonville finished with an identical record as San Diego in conference play but withdrew from championship contention due to players receiving improper financial aid, which gave the Toreros the playoff nod.
Interestingly enough, the Toreros suffered the same fate last season when they had to vacate their PFL championship because of scholarship inconsistencies, but they bounced back in a big way this year.
Meanwhile, Cal Poly suffered a deflating loss to the Big Sky Conference’s worst team and rival UC Davis at home last weekend. Before that, the Mustangs had a five-game win streak snapped in a battle of a couple of the Big Sky’s top teams at Idaho State.
Those last two weeks essentially knocked Cal Poly out of playoff contention. Following those letdowns, the message from Walsh to his team was clear entering Saturday’s game.
“I think the challenge was, ‘do you want to be thought of as 6-6 team, or a 7-5 team that was probably 18 points away from being undefeated in the Big Sky?’” Walsh said.
Cal Poly had its share of problems outside of the stunner against the Aggies and the loss against the Bengals. What started as a bleak outlook to the season after five of the team’s players were arrested and charged with an alleged attempted armed robbery turned into a poor start, then a five-game win streak that spurred talk of playoff hopes and ended with tough luck in the season’s two penultimate games.
On Saturday, the Mustangs jumped out early with senior fullback Brandon Howe’s 2-yard touchdown run set up by junior quarterback Chris Brown’s scamper to the red zone.
Brown threw a 13-yard touchdown strike to junior wide receiver Jordan Hines in the second quarter before being taken out at halftime because of a leg injury.
Graves picked up right where Brown left off. He scored three touchdowns, one through the air and two on the ground in the second half.
“It feels real nice, I mean I’m running around practice going full speed because I’m 100 percent healthy and I just kind of all season felt up like a riled up dog just ready to go,” Graves said. “And finally I got my opportunity.”
San Diego scored its lone points on a 32-yard field goal late in the first quarter by David Last.
Cal Poly’s defense didn’t give up much more, as it played a more physical game than it did against UC Davis, according to senior linebacker Nick Dzubnar. San Diego was forced to punt six times in the game.
“If you look at the way we played UC Davis, we weren’t physical, we weren’t ready and we didn’t finish,” Dzubnar said. “Obviously, coming into your last game we knew we weren’t going to the playoffs, but we knew we could leave the season off with a bang.”
Dzubnar recorded seven tackles, an interception and a forced fumble on Saturday. He also added to his school record-breaking single-season tackle total with seven in the game.
Cal Poly accumulated 482 yards in total offense and held San Diego to 234 yards. The Mustangs now own a 4-0 record all time against the Toreros.
“We wanted to show the Pioneer League that we should have been a qualifier in our league,” Graves said. “We’re definitely playoff quality and I think we showed that tonight.”
With an at-large playoff berth highly unlikely — the 24-team field will be announced Sunday morning — the Mustangs can take several positives away from the 2014 campaign. Cal Poly broke the school and Big Sky records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a single season, an impressive feat considering its top returning slotback was involved in the robbery incident and didn’t play this season.
The Mustangs also became the only Football Championship Subdivision school to produce two 1,000-yard rushers this season, as both Brown and sophomore slotback Kori Garcia achieved the milestone. Brown is Cal Poly’s only quarterback to ever run for more than 1,000 yards.
Eastern Washington, a team Cal Poly did not play this season, earned the Big Sky Conference’s automatic playoff berth with a win over Portland State on Saturday.