Lauren Rabaino

Posted at 12:35 a.m., Sunday, Aug. 31.
SAN DIEGO – Andrew Gardner earned himself a new nickname Saturday night, on the biggest stage of his life.

By splitting the uprights with a 21-yard field goal as time expired, the 5-foot-7, 162-pound junior gave his Cal Poly football team a 29-27 win at San Diego State, making the Mustangs the only Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) team in the opening week of college football to successfully swing up at a Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) counterpart, sending the sizable Cal Poly gathering of the 26,851 at Qualcomm Stadium into pandemonium.

In the process, he was bestowed a new moniker by coaches and teammates.

“I’m not surprised,” Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson shouted before heading back to the locker room, where dozens of players slowly trickled after deliriously hugging family members and friends in the stands. “You’re automatic! That was foregone!”

Gardner, all alone at midfield as the stadium’s lights were turned off, was beside himself.

“Hey coach, to be honest, I blacked out,” he said of the decisive kick. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

He was then interrupted by all-too jubilant assistant coach Mark Cordes, who jogged past and exclaimed, “Automatic Andrew, baby!”

“The nickname?” Gardner thought aloud. “That’s actually the first time I’ve ever heard it.”

That was about the only newfound glimmer in a wild tug-of-war that was a dark déj… vu for the Aztecs, who lost in similar fashion to Cal Poly on Oct. 28, 2006, 16-14, on a 37-yard field goal by Nick Coromelas with a minute and 50 seconds remaining.

Saturday’s game-winning chip shot was set up by senior running back James Noble, who raced down the left sideline for a 29-yard gain three plays before the kick.

“The whole time I was thinking, ‘Should I go out of bounds, or go for the TD?’” Noble said. “And I had to think of my teammates first and get out of bounds.”

Gardner was content to do the rest.

“I just thank God for getting another chance to be able to do what I’ve done a thousand times in my life,” he said of recovering from sending a 40-yarder short and to the left with 9:14 left in the fourth quarter. “I can’t even count how many guys came over to me and gave me that vote of confidence and told me, ‘This is going to be your game.’”

The similarities to the upset two years ago weren’t lost on the Davis native, who was 2 for 3 on the night.

“Luckily, when I was a redshirt freshman, when we played our first game here, I was able to travel down with the team even though I wasn’t starting,” Gardner remembered. “And I got to see Nick do what I just did. For us to be able to play at Qualcomm and experience it (in the past) made it not so bad coming back here.”

San Diego State had plenty of reasons to be left at the other end of the spectrum of spirits.

In a tumultuous first half that saw five challenges and four fourth-down conversion tries between the two teams, the Aztecs forfeited four of five fumbles and were intercepted once.

They headed to the locker room down 16-7, showered in boos, having been outgained in yardage 220-129, and outdone in time-of-possession by 7:26.

“Obviously, this was a tough loss for us and our program,” Aztecs head coach Chuck Long said. “It was a simple case of turnovers.”

The Aztecs would rebound in the second half, though, as redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley set school freshman records by completing 27 of 45 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.

But he left the door open for the resurgent Mustangs by misfiring on a two-point attempt after sophomore running back Brandon Sullivan took a sweep five yards to the left to give the Aztecs their only lead of the game, at 27-26 with 6:51 remaining, before Cal Poly would eventually take it right back by driving 63 yards in nine plays consuming the concluding 3:39.

The Mustangs got the ball back after San Diego State, holding a one-point lead with 4:24 left, passed unsuccessfully on both second and third downs.

“(Cal Poly) did a nice job of stacking the line all day,” Long explained. “That’s why we wanted to come out and throw.”

San Diego State was without junior running back Atiyyah Henderson, a projected starter. Without him, the Aztecs ran just 23 times to Cal Poly’s 51, were outrushed 263-27 and held the ball just 22 minutes to Cal Poly’s 38.

Cal Poly, however, wasn’t without its own share of gaffes to keep the Aztecs alive, committing five penalties for 50 yards and losing a fumble.

“We threw away some scoring opportunities,” Ellerson said. “We absolutely took points off the board by doing really silly things. It’s not often we get to survive some of that stuff.”

Mustangs senior quarterback Jonathan Dally completed 12 of 20 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown – a 22-yard, first-quarter strike to senior wide receiver Ramses Barden, who finished with 161 yards and the score on seven catches.

Defensively, Cal Poly’s effort was energized by a first-quarter safety courtesy of sophomore nose tackle James Chen, and later interceptions by junior safety David Fullerton and freshman cornerback Asa Jackson. Chen added a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

The Mustangs, who entered the contest ranked No. 14 in the FCS coaches preseason poll, host No. 7 Montana at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.

That his players had the composure to rally against an FBS team didn’t jolt Ellerson, who admitted to watching the scores of FCS-versus-FBS matchups earlier in the day.

“We’re not surprised,” he said. “It was an uphill fight, but it wasn’t that steep, and frankly, we’re going to be mad as heck at ourselves for some of those things that we didn’t do. I’m going to enjoy the heck out of this, and then by tomorrow evening, I’ll be fussy as the day is long.”

Noble, who finished with a team-high 89 rushing yards on 11 carries, also conveyed a been-there, done-that mentality.

“It’s just a win,” Noble said. “It’s just getting us started.”

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