SAN JOSE – No matter how many times the Cal Poly football team’s defense bailed it out Saturday, the Mustangs’ offense never got off the ground in a 17-7 loss at San Jose State.
Cal Poly (3-1) committed four turnovers, fumbled four times and was just 2 for 13 on third-down conversion attempts in front of 15,684 fans at Spartan Stadium.
“They gave us a chance when we didn’t really deserve one,” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said. “If our defense can hold the line like this, we have a chance to get back on track.”
Ranked fifth in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA poll, Cal Poly at times appeared outmatched against a 2-1 San Jose State squad that entered coming off a 35-34 win over Stanford and a bye week. The Mustangs were playing their first game against Division I-A competition since a 27-10 loss at Troy in the 2005 season opener.
“It was a fun challenge in a big environment,” said Cal Poly senior middle linebacker Kyle Shotwell, who had 11 tackles and a forced fumble. “A loss against a Division I-A team is only going to make us better. We’re going to learn a lot from this.”
Cal Poly sophomore quarterback Matt Brennan completed 9 of 21 passes for 107 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions. His 20-yard scoring strike to Ramses Barden with 38 seconds left in the game prevented the Mustangs from being shut out for the first time in eight years.
The Mustangs struggled without Walter Payton Award candidate tailback James Noble, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. Ellerson said the sophomore, who set school records for single-season rushing yards (1,578) and touchdowns (16) last year, remains day-to-day.
Noble was not the only regular in the Mustangs’ lineup to miss a start.
Surprise starting quarterback Cordel Webb, who had not thrown a pass in two years, was under center at the start of the game after being converted from defensive back. He was 0 for 2 passing, but made his biggest impact running the option.
With a multitude of designed runs, Webb carried eight times for 26 yards.
“The offense kind of shot itself in the foot a couple times,” Webb said. “It’s kind of tough when you have third and long and fumble a couple balls away, especially because they knew we were going to pass when they were up by so many points.”
Brennan might return to his starting role alongside Noble for Saturday’s Hall of Fame Game against Southern Utah, but it was too soon for Ellerson to make such an indication.
“We have to take advantage of what resources are left to us,” Ellerson said. “We’re trying to manufacture a running game. The idea was to try to make the clock run a little bit.”
Cal Poly’s chances were not helped by having to kick off at the beginning of each half. The oddity occurred because of apparent miscommunication during the coin toss between captains Joe Wighton, Jeremy Konaris and Randy Samuel.
“Everybody’s got a different story with what was said and what happened,” Ellerson said of the coin toss. “We did not do that by design, that’s for sure.”
The Mustangs possessed the ball for just 24 minutes, 34 seconds and were forced to punt seven times. With seven receptions for 110 yards, the 6-foot, 6-inch Barden was the only offensive playmaker to make a significant impact.
Aside from the defense, which has allowed just 6.75 points per game through four outings, the biggest positive sign for Cal Poly was being penalized only once for five yards.
Cal Poly free safety Kenny Chicoine had 12 tackles and an interception, linebacker Jason Relyea had nine tackles and a fumble recovery and defensive end Ryan Shotwell had six tackles and two sacks.
“We tackled as well as anyone has tackled (the Spartans) all year,” Ellerson said. “If somebody missed a tackle, we still had other guys flying to the football.”
San Jose State head coach Dick Tomey, under whom Ellerson served previously at Arizona and Hawaii, agreed.
“They pressured us more and better than anybody we’ve played,” Tomey said. “That was clearly the best defense we’ve played.”
That’s saying a lot considering Tomey’s team has already faced a pair of Pac-10 opponents.
Cal Poly fell from No. 3 to 5 in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA poll released Monday. Sixteen teams reach the playoffs.
The Mustangs dropped 22 spots to No. 114 in Jeff Sagarin’s USA?Today rankings, which combine Divisions I-A and I-AA. There are 241 teams in the rankings.
As for Cal Poly, whose playoff prospects will likely go undamaged because of one loss to a Division I-A team, the Mustangs are already putting any frustration from Saturday behind them.
“I’m just excited to get back to work on Tuesday,” Kyle Shotwell said.