Several fans headed for the exits early during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Homecoming game.
Who could blame them?
After all, the Cal Poly football team had a 22-point lead on South Dakota State and was coasting to its 11th straight home win with only 8 minutes remaining.
Maybe coasting a little too casually.
The Jackrabbits stunned the Mustangs by scoring 23 points in the final 7:55 to seize a heart-pounding 29-28 Great West Football Conference victory in front of 9,042 at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“We all had thoughts in the backs of our minds like, ‘we’re up by 22 – there’s no way we’re going to lose,’” Cal Poly quarterback Matt Brennan said. “That kind of thinking gets you in trouble like we did and South Dakota State kept playing the next play.”
The loss puts into serious jeopardy the playoff hopes for Cal Poly (5-2, 2-1), which is sure to drop significantly from the No. 4 spot in today’s newest Sports Network Division I-AA poll.
“I just can’t excuse it like we got hit by lightning, but that was part of it,” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said. “We got hit by lightning.”
Winners of four straight, South Dakota State (4-3, 1-0) would not have rallied to win without a barrage of gutsy plays from quarterback Andy Kardoes. The 6-foot-3-inch senior fired sequential touchdown passes of 14, 12 and 19 yards to JaRon Harris.
“We knew that we could play with them,” said Kardoes, who completed 14 of 27 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
After the final score, which came with 1:05 left, Kardoes convinced South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier to go for the game-winning two-point conversion instead of kicking an extra point that could have tied the game at 28. He then plunged into the end zone behind the left side of the offensive line, sending the Jackrabbits’ sideline into a frenzy and silencing the remaining Cal Poly fans.
“They put pressure on the quarterback and that’s what they live and die off of,” Kardoes said of the Mustangs, who entered the game ranked second in Division I-AA in fewest points allowed per game (9.7). “For three and a half quarters, they were living off it.”
No doubt about that.
Through three quarters, Cal Poly had outgained South Dakota State 265-169, rushed for 164 more yards and ran 14 more plays from scrimmage.
But that all went out the window in a fourth quarter in which Cal Poly’s defense hardly looked familiar. It marked the first time the Mustangs surrendered a fourth-quarter lead since Oct. 4, 2003, when Montana erased a 14-10 deficit in a 17-14 win.
“They just wanted it more than us,” said Cal Poly cornerback Courtney Brown, who had six tackles.
Neither Brown nor defensive end Ryan Shotwell was surprised to see South Dakota State go for two after the last touchdown.
“The biggest difference was just that we kind of came out pretty flat in the second half,” said Shotwell, who with a half-sack improved his team-leading total to 5.5. “They played a great game, their attitude was right and ours wasn’t. They really stepped up in the fourth quarter and pulled off what they needed to do.”
Cal Poly had one last chance after Brennan hit Ramses Barden for a 45-yard pass play down the right sideline. That got the Mustangs to the Jackrabbits’ 36-yard line inside the final minute.
But after an injury timeout, Brennan’s front-side post pattern to Tredale Tolver was picked off in the end zone by Tyler Koch with 33 seconds remaining.
Brennan finished 4 of 13 for 84 yards with the one pick. Walter Payton Award candidate and sophomore tailback James Noble carried 26 times for 168 yards for Cal Poly.
The loss is especially puzzling considering three statistics – Cal Poly held South Dakota State to a 1-for-9 conversion rate on third downs, averaged 2.8 more yards per rush and possessed the ball for 33:22.
“Every coach, every player, including the guys on the scout team last Thursday, had a chance to win this game,” Ellerson said. “We need to understand that we are all part of the challenge and all part of the solution. If we’ll do that, we have a chance. If we want to give ourselves an out and say, ‘so-and-so screwed up,’ then we don’t have a chance.”
The game was a reversal of Cal Poly’s last two, second-half comeback victories over Southern Utah and rival UC Davis.
“We’re not a dominant outfit,” Ellerson said.
Despite looking like anything but itself during the fourth quarter, Cal Poly’s defense only fell from first to third in Division I-AA in fewest yards allowed per game (217.9).
What’s more, the Mustangs have still not allowed a single point in the first quarter of a game all season.
That was little consolation, however, to a group that suffered its first loss in a month and fell for the first time at home since a 36-33 defeat at the hands of UC Davis on Oct. 30, 2004.
“There are a million lessons,” Ellerson said of what he expects when his team breaks down the film. “There are too many to even articulate.”