The no. 14 Cal Poly football team lost 42-21 at home Saturday night to no.3 Eastern Washington in the Mustangs’ first loss at home this season.
This loss means the Mustangs (6-3, 4-2 Big Sky) will have an uphill battle to reach the FCS playoffs. Eastern Washington (8-1, 6-0), consistently one of the best teams in the Big Sky Conference, was a huge test for the Mustangs this season.
“We had so much energy I was concerned about being over the top energetic,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “The energy can’t surpass your focus and your responsibilities. I think that probably did happen tonight.”
The game opened well for the Mustangs. Against Eastern Washington’s vaunted offense that ranks second in the country in yards and fourth in points, the Mustangs forced a fumble and a punt on their first drive. After getting the ball back, the Mustangs were in perfect position with the ball on their own 33 yard line to march the field and score some points.
But that drive would end in the first of multiple costly mistakes the Mustangs would make.
Senior quarterback Dano Graves threw an interception in the end zone to end the drive for the Mustang offense. Eastern Washington wasted no time in taking advantage of the costly turnover and went 93 yards in three minutes to score on a 30-yard screen pass by quarterback Gage Gubrud to wide receiver Shaq Hill.
To his credit, Graves led the offense down the field on the ensuing possession and scored a nine-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7. The Mustang defense couldn’t stop the Eagles on the next possession as wide receiver Kendrick Bourne had a one-handed touchdown catch to give Eastern Washington a 14-7 lead less than a minute after Cal Poly tied the game.
Following a three and out by the Mustang offense, the Eagles got the ball back again near midfield. The Eagles went 52 yards in two minutes to score another touchdown pass from Gubrud to Bourne after the Mustang defense bit hard on play action. With that score, the Mustangs were behind 21-7 just four minutes into the second quarter.
On the next possession, junior slotback Kyle Lewis took the first play for a 16-yard run to jump start the Mustangs’ offense. The running game took over for the rest of the drive and Graves punched it in from one yard out to narrow the Eagles’ lead to 21-14. The Eagles got the ball back on offense having scored touchdowns on their previous three drives but junior defensive back Jerek Rosales corralled a pass from Gubrud to give the Mustangs the ball back at their own 39 and keep the Eagles’ offense off the field.
The Mustang offense failed to capitalize on what would be the only turnover of the night by Eastern Washington, turning the ball over on downs just after crossing midfield. The Eagles took over but missed a field goal as time expired in the second quarter to keep the game 21-14 at halftime.
The Eagles started with the ball in the second half and marched down the field again for a touchdown on a 28-yard pass from wide receiver Cooper Kupp to Hill. The Cal Poly defense didn’t anticipate the trick play and Hill was wide open for the score.
After a few fruitless drives by both teams, senior slotback Kori Garcia fumbled a pitch from Graves that the Eagles recovered to take over on the Mustangs’ 28 yard line. Kupp, the country’s leading receiver in yards per game, threw another touchdown to Hill to give the Eagles a 35-14 lead with four minutes left in the third quarter.
Cal Poly took the next possession 72 yards to score on fourth and one on a touchdown by junior fullback Joe Protheroe. At the end of the third quarter, the Mustangs were down 35-21 but not out of the game.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Kupp took a pass from Gubrud 45 yards to the end zone to score another Eagles touchdown to give Eastern Washington a 42-21 lead with four and a half minutes left in the final quarter. Junior fullback Jared Mohamed fumbled the ball on the next possession and the Mustangs couldn’t overcome the Eagles’ lead in the closing minutes of the game.
For Cal Poly’s defense, Eastern Washington’s empty sets and spread formations were a difficult matchup. “Going against an offense like that, you have to take out a defensive lineman,” senior linebacker Chris Santini said. “Having to bring in another defensive back was a different look for us.”
With two games left in the season, the Mustangs travel to Weber State (5-4, 4-2) next weekend before ending the season at home against Northern Colorado (5-4, 3-3). If they win out, they could have a chance at the FCS tournament.
“We can still go to the national playoff,” Walsh said. “We need to seize that moment, seize that opportunity, but it’s not going to be easy.”