Forty minutes and 17 seconds.
That’s how long the North Dakota State football team possessed the ball in its 51-14 rout of Cal Poly on Saturday. The loss in front of 14,706 fans at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D., ends both the Mustangs’ Great West Football Conference title and Division I-AA playoff hopes.
“They clobbered us,” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said Sunday. “They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides. We haven’t been dominated like that defensively since maybe Toledo.”
Ellerson referred to the Mustangs’ 44-16 loss at I-A Toledo in the 2002 season opener. Saturday marked the most points Cal Poly had allowed since a 63-28 home loss to UC Davis in 2000, Larry Welsh’s final season at the helm. It was Cal Poly’s worst margin of defeat since a 53-3 loss at Montana, also in 2000.
“The (Bison) plays weren’t anything that we hadn’t seen before,” Ellerson said. “They were blocking us, running hard and executing.”
A 5-1 start and No. 3 ranking in I-AA seem like a long time ago for No. 9 Cal Poly (6-4, 2-2), which will not own or share the Great West crown for the first time since its inception in 2004. Fifth-ranked North Dakota State (9-1, 3-0) and No. 22 South Dakota State (7-3, 3-0) will square off for the Great West title next week.
But despite being ranked No. 1 among 16 I-AA conferences in USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin ratings for more than a month, it appears the Great West will not send a team to the postseason for three reasons. First, neither of the Dakota schools nor UC Davis (4-5, 1-3) is eligible for the playoffs because all are still transitioning from Division II. Second, the conference will not carry an automatic bid to the postseason until it consists of six playoff-eligible teams aligned for at least two seasons. Third, it’s very unlikely that Cal Poly or Southern Utah (3-7, 0-4) will receive one of eight at-large bids because no team with four losses has received an at-large bid since Idaho went with a 6-4 record in 1995.
Additionally, Cal Poly’s 44-0 win over Division II Fort Lewis in the season opener Sept. 2 does not count among its five I-A or I-AA wins with one game remaining. Teams with fewer than seven wins “are in jeopardy of not being selected,” according to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Handbook.
When asked whether the playoffs for Cal Poly are still a possibility, Ellerson said, “No. I can’t imagine.”
Ellerson added the best thing the Mustangs – who secured their fourth straight winning season with a 16-14 win at I-A San Diego State on Oct. 28 – can take out of Saturday’s loss is that it is not their last game.
Cal Poly closes the season at home at 1 p.m. Nov. 18 on Senior Day against Savannah State (2-8), which beat NAIA Edward Waters 28-7 Saturday. The season finale for both teams will be played at the completed Alex G. Spanos Stadium, which officials expect to seat up to 11,775. If filled to capacity, that mark would shatter Cal Poly’s home attendance record (9,387), which was set in 2004 against UC Davis.
“I think we can be a good team,” Ellerson said. “We’re not a great team. We can be a good team. If we were going to be a great team, we had to come away with a win at Montana or North Dakota State. The only good news is we get to play again.”
Indeed, there was not much for the Mustangs to be happy with Saturday after being outplayed on offense, defense and special teams.
Consider these staggering statistics:
North Dakota State had 28 first downs to just six for Cal Poly.
Cal Poly had more yards punting (197) than total offense (169). The Bison outgained the Mustangs 466-169 in yards from scrimmage.
North Dakota State snapped the ball 68 times compared to just 37 for Cal Poly.
From the point at which Cal Poly had a 14-0 lead to when it trailed 34-14, the Mustangs snapped the ball only seven times.
“We exasperate things by throwing an interception,” Ellerson said. “It was going to be hard anyway and then you do some of those things.”
Cal Poly actually led 14-0 after a first quarter in which Matt Brennan threw a 7-yard touchdown strike to Justin Belcher and James Noble ran for a 2-yard score.
But then North Dakota State rolled up 51 unanswered points, including 28 in the second quarter and 16 in the third.
Noble, a sophomore and Walter Payton Award candidate, carried 13 times for 52 yards. Sophomore quarterback Brennan completed 3 of 8 passes for 15 yards and one touchdown with one pick and rushed for 36 yards on seven attempts. Cal Poly sophomore wide receiver Ramses Barden caught three passes for 50 yards, including a 42-yarder from freshman H-back Jon Hall.
The running game was a positive for Cal Poly. Four ball carriers combined for 112 yards on 28 attempts.
But that paled in comparison to North Dakota State, which had two rushers surpass 100 yards on the ground. The Bison’s Kyle Steffes carried 25 times for 127 yards and a score and Pete Blincoe 11 times for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
It was only the second and third times this season the Mustangs’ double-eagle flex defense allowed a player to rush for at least 100 yards.
Cal Poly senior middle linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Kyle Shotwell racked up 17 total tackles, including 10 solo stops. With 114 on the season and 384 in his career, Shotwell has a chance Nov. 18 to become just the second player in school history – the other being Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jordan Beck – to reach 400 tackles for a career.
Beck made 449 tackles from 2001-04, Shotwell is second and Gary Swanson (1981-84) third with 326 on the school’s all-time list.