With all the talk of what was arguably one of the worst seasons of the decade behind them, the Mustangs almost gave reason for all the conspirators to unite once again Saturday night.
With the slate wiped clean from last year’s 4-7 record, the Mustangs almost slipped, but rallied past a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat Division-II Humboldt State, 23-17, in Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“Our kids came here believing they could win this football game, we knew no one gave us much of a chance,” Humboldt State head coach Rob Smith said. “We had our chances and didn’t get it done.”
Through two quarters, Humboldt State had Cal Poly figured out. The Mustangs struggled to get the passing game going, with Tony Smith starting under center, and failed to keep the ball in their possession. Incompletions, plays for lost yardage and fumbles nearly led this team to upping its losing streak to five games in a row, dating back into last season’s numbers.
“It just felt like we couldn’t get into a rhythm,” Tony Smith said. “Obviously turnovers kill you and we had some penalties that were costly.”
The Mustangs fired off just six plays on the first two drives. On their first possession, Tony Smith led the offense to a three-and-out. On their second, he was intercepted by Lumberjack cornerback Elzie Gatson on a deep pass to Eric Gardley, in the back corner of the end zone.
Then the Mustangs showed life, capping a seven-play 19-yard drive with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Mark Rodgers — a West Virginia transfer.
But the offensive problems resurfaced. Trailing 10-7, Eric Gardley fumbled an exchange between he and Tony Smith in a shotgun, read-option type handoff and Humboldt State’s Jonathn Farimo picked the ball up, ran with a gang of teammates 29 yards and scored just minutes before halftime.
At the half, a team two years removed from one of the most successful football seasons in school history, now trailed a Division-II opponent by 10 points. Not to mention, Humboldt State nearly outgained Cal Poly by 100 yards of total offense, and gained 109 yards through the air, compared to the Mustangs’ 13.
And as the rumblings and grumblings of what could have been another though season — with a season opening loss — started to surface, the easiest scapegoat to blame was Smith.
He failed to post more than 20 yards passing and turned the ball over twice, a fumble and an interception. His completion percentage lay short of 30 percent and he didn’t tally his first completion until the second quarter.
As a quarterback — the usual assumed leader of a football team — Tony Smith was leading his team in the wrong direction.
“We preach to our football team that in every game there is going to be some amount of good, bad and ugly,” Walsh said. “There is no team that plays a perfect game and, without question, we played an ugly first half. We challenge our team to be responsible for it and we challenge our team to be responsive to it.”
He taught his quarterback well.
After another Rodgers touchdown put the Mustangs within striking distance, 17-14, Tony Smith took over, finding paydirt on a 48-yard option keeper in the third quarter.
“I saw a crease, I took it, got some good blocks down field and was able to score a touchdown,” Tony Smith said. “I think that really changed the momentum of the game, and I saw it from there. I mean, I think you could really feel the swing of things going our way.”
From that point on, the Mustangs didn’t let up, pouring on a James Chen safety in the fourth quarter to cap the scoring.
“Their offense got going,” Rob Smith said. “And they were able to make adjustments on both sides.”
Rodgers led the second-half attack – that powered the Mustangs to outgain Humbolt State by 80 yards of offense – and finished the game with 105 yards on the ground, a team high.
“He was electrifying,” Walsh said. “He is an electric player and we need more guys to step up like that and be playmakers.”
Fullback Jake Romanelli was right behind him, finishing the game with 81 yards off 12 carries. Tony Smith finished the game with 39 yards passing and a score. On the ground, he racked up 76 yards with a touchdown.
The win marks the first for the program since Oct. 24 of last year, but for now it’s back to the drawing board. Even though Cal Poly has hushed the critics for at least one more week, the Mustangs will need to diagnose their play to get ready for Montana next week – a team who boasted a 73-2 win against Western State on Sept. 4.
“It’s tough the first game, but you just roll with the punches and we came on top,” Tony Smith said. “So that’s all that matters. We have a lot of work to do in the film room and have a lot of things to correct.”