For the third year in a row, the Cal Poly football team ran over a school from the Dakotas at home. This time, though, it kept its collective foot on the gas pedal afterward.
There was no surrendering 22 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes, as in a 31-28 loss to North Dakota State in 2007. Nor yielding 23 unanswered in the concluding eight, like in a 29-28 defeat at the hands of South Dakota State in 2006.
Instead, there was Ramses Barden stretching over a tackler, trying to break the plane of the end zone after being brought down at the 1-yard line following a 67-yard catch-and-run to set up a Jonathan Dally touchdown plunge in the last minute of the third quarter. And Jon Hall looking all around for would-be tacklers while bursting through the right hash for a 47-yard touchdown run after his team already led by 27 points, refusing to allow himself – and the Mustangs – to be snatched from behind again.
It all added up to a 49-22 win over South Dakota at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday night.
“We always have the mindset that any team could come back,” Cal Poly senior running back James Noble said. “But we know the way the Dakota teams can play and we wanted to make sure nothing funny happened.”
The Mustangs had to against the Coyotes (2-4, 0-1 Great West Conference), a team in its first year of transition from Division II.
Although the victory doesn’t count toward the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) requirement of seven wins against fully-fledged Division I opponents necessary for playoff eligibility, a loss certainly would’ve sent the No. 8 Mustangs (3-1, 1-0 GWC) tumbling in the minds of the selection committee.
“We wanted to match their effort and intensity,” said Barden, a senior receiver.
That wasn’t tough to do for the Mustangs, who – following McNeese State’s Hurricane Ike-induced cancellation of the teams’ third-week meeting – were coming off their second of three bye weeks over a five-week period.
“Everybody’s anxious,” Barden added. “We’re honestly tired of not playing. It’s tough to work so hard in the offseason and summer and watch other teams on ESPN and they have an opportunity to play when we’re sitting down with our feet up. You really start to miss the game when it’s taken from you.”
Cal Poly junior safety David Fullerton shared those sentiments.
“It felt like forever,” he said of the most recent bye. “This was probably the most hyped, coming out to this game, that I’ve ever been.”
The Mustangs’ eagerness from the onset was aided by several South Dakota miscues that provided Cal Poly’s four opening drives an average starting position at its own 45-yard line throughout the first quarter, which the Mustangs ended ahead 21-0.
The first two scores – a 34-yard alley-oop the 6-foot-6 Barden snatched out of the sky above 5-11 senior cornerback Isaiah Dixon and a 34-yard sprint by Noble – came within the Mustangs’ first three offensive plays.
Noble’s score was set up by a Fullerton interception, the first of two Cal Poly takeaways on the day and their first since Aug. 30’s season opener.
“The turnovers got our defense back on track,” Fullerton said.
Cal Poly, though, which entered the contest leading the FCS with five sacks per outing, didn’t record any and allowed Coyotes junior quarterback Noah Shepard to complete 18 of 34 passes for 211 yards and rush for 92 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries.
“The quarterback’s legs break our heart a little bit,” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said. “We’re going to see that (kind of) play every week, and we’re going to see it from people that are better than the group we just played. We have to grow, have to be more efficient in space and be more disciplined with our eyes.”
But Cal Poly’s defense had scarce time to talk about any problems on the sidelines because of its counterpart’s quick-strike execution.
As if the game-opening flurry weren’t lightning-fast enough, the Mustangs consumed just nine minutes and 25 seconds during their three second-half touchdown drives.
The second of them – capped by Dally’s 1-yarder – extended the lead to 42-7 with 48 seconds left in the third quarter. Mostly reserves finished the game for the Mustangs.
“We’re not getting 4 yards, 5 yards, 3 yards, 6 yards – we’re getting 15 yards, then 35 yards, then a touchdown,” Ellerson said. “The clock’s not moving, we’re in the end zone so doggone fast.”
Barden, swarmed after the game by dozens of autograph-seeking children, finished with five catches for 158 yards and three touchdowns.
Dally completed 6 of 10 throws for 162 yards and three scores and rushed for 64 yards and the touchdown on nine attempts.
Noble carried 10 times for a game-high 109 yards and two touchdowns.
Overall, Cal Poly’s offense, which entered fourth in the FCS, amassed 463 yards despite holding the ball nearly seven minutes less than the Coyotes.
“I took a look at the clock, and we had the ball first-and-goal at the 2,” Ellerson said. “I’m going, ‘Can we just take a knee? Or get a couple first downs or something just to get some time off the clock?’ That’s a good problem to have.”
What may not be such a good problem is having yet another bye week – this season’s last – before a trip to South Dakota State for an Oct. 18 game.
“We just have to have the mentality to go hard in practice,” Noble said of trying to make up for even more inaction.
Last season, South Dakota State beat Cal Poly 48-35 in Brookings, S.D.
“We want to keep it fresh but we don’t want to practice ourselves into a coma,” Ellerson said.