SAN DIEGO – Kenny Chicoine was a redshirt freshman the last time the Cal Poly football team beat a Division I-A school.

Things have come full circle.

The senior free safety recovered a crucial fumble with 3 minutes, 2 seconds remaining, leading to Nick Coromelas’ game-winning 37-yard field goal in the Mustangs’ stunning 16-14 win over I-A San Diego State on Saturday night in front of 20,974 at Qualcomm Stadium.

It marked the seventh time this season a I-AA team has defeated a I-A and the first time Cal Poly has done so since a landmark 34-13 win at UTEP in the 2003 season opener. The Mustangs’ only other victory against a I-A school was a 38-35 overtime win at New Mexico State in 1997.

“I think that was the start of something great in the Cal Poly football program, to beat a I-A opponent down there,” Chicoine said of the UTEP game. “That was huge for the team just to start understanding that OK, we can start beating national contenders. We started developing that belief system over time that the (I-AA) national championship’s not long away.”

Indeed, the I-AA postseason looks like a much greater possibility now than it did following Cal Poly’s shocking 29-28 Great West Football Conference loss Oct. 21 on Homecoming to South Dakota State.

The sideline for Cal Poly (6-2, 2-1) erupted into a raucous celebration when San Diego State kicker Garrett Palmer’s 48-yard field goal attempt with 32 seconds to go sailed wide left.

After time expired, the Mustangs saluted several hundred Cal Poly fans in attendance by singing the school’s fight song, “Ride High, You Mustangs,” while hugging each other, friends and family members.

“I think it’s a huge win for a lot of reasons,” said Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson, whose team clinched its fourth straight winning season. “It’s a winning season for our senior class. It keeps a lot of our other goals alive.”

San Diego State entered the game with a 13-9 lead in the all-time series, but the two schools had not played each other since 1967.

“There was so much on the table,” Ellerson said. “The fact that it was San Diego State, kind of a traditional foe, someone we haven’t played in a long time but used to play all the time – our fans, our alumni, our former players can all identify with what this thing feels like. That’s all powerful stuff.”

Initially, it looked as if Cal Poly would have a long bus ride home.

San Diego State (1-6, 1-2 Mountain West Conference), which left the field to boos on its Homecoming night, took a 14-3 first-quarter lead on a pair of Kevin Craft touchdown passes to Ramal Porter.

But after the first quarter, Cal Poly limited San Diego State to 186 yards from scrimmage.

The biggest single reason for the defensive success was senior middle linebacker Kyle Shotwell, who had 12 tackles and four sacks. His four sacks were the most by any Mustang since Cal Poly moved to the I-AA level in 1994.

The Buck Buchanan Award candidate had 11 solo tackles, five tackles for losses of 26 yards and also forced a fumble.

As impressive as Kyle Shotwell’s performance was, it was his brother, freshman defensive end Ryan Shotwell, who forced Atiyyah Henderson’s game-changing, fourth-quarter fumble.

“We got a takeaway, we got a break,” Ellerson said. “I was going to make sure that we gave ourselves a chance to win the game down there. I was not going to return the favor.”

None of the heroics would have been possible without the playmaking of Walter Payton Award candidate sophomore tailback James Noble and sophomore receiver Ramses Barden.

Noble carried 25 times for 100 yards and Barden caught three Matt Brennan passes for 80 yards and a score.

Barden’s 28-yard touchdown reception 32 seconds before halftime, which cut the Aztecs’ lead to 14-10, was set up by Noble’s 38-yard run down the left sideline.

“We were looking for some magic,” Ellerson said of Noble’s run. “The most magic guy we have is James.”

It was a homecoming of sorts for Noble, a Barstow native who had several family members in attendance.

“I was so nervous this morning, really nervous,” Noble said. “Probably the most I’ve ever been. Everybody was coming to see me, see what I could do. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I was trying to block that out and play the game. It took me a while to get going, but I was able to work through it.”

That Noble was, racking up his 14th 100-yard game in 18 career starts.

Henderson rushed for 140 yards on 26 attempts, becoming just the ninth player to rush for 100 yards against the Mustangs in 42 games.

The 54,000-seat Qualcomm Stadium, which has hosted three Super Bowls and is the Chargers’ home stadium, is believed to be the largest venue at which Cal Poly has ever played.

That didn’t intimidate the Mustangs, who played with such poise that they were penalized only three times for 25 yards.

“I think we wanted it more than these guys,” Noble said. “When big plays happened, we didn’t get down. I would say the whole fourth quarter we had them on their heels. They weren’t able to rebound.”

With help from its vaunted double-eagle flex defense, Cal Poly has rallied to win in each of its last three victories. Noble had a feeling the same might happen Saturday leading up to Chicoine’s fumble recovery.

“Our defense stepped up again,” Noble said. “We were just waiting for that big play the whole time. Fortunately, late in the game they did it.”

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