Cal Poly’s home field advantage was completely negated by a torrential downpour and a red-hot San Diego squad.
Cal Poly plays its home games at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, one of the premier natural grass venues in all of college football. But an afternoon and evening of rain muddied the field, putting a detrimental kink in Cal Poly’s triple option offense.
Partially due to San Diego’s disciplined, swarming defense and partially because of the challenges handling the football, Cal Poly’s normally potent offense managed just 293 yards total, including just 146 yards on the ground. The Mustangs averaged 500 yards of offense per game this season, including an FCS-best 361 yards per game on the ground.
Cal Poly turned the ball over three times, notched just 10 first downs and outside a long kick return to start the second half, never held any momentum as San Diego posted a history 35-21 victory in San Luis Obispo on Saturday night.
The USD victory in the first round of the FCS playoffs marks the first-ever playoff win for a team from the Pioneer League. The non-scholarship league of 11 teams began receiving an auto-bid to the FCS playoffs in 2013. Butler, San Diego and Dayton all lost first-round contests.
San Diego will play at top-seeded and five-time defending national champion North Dakota State in Fargo on December 3.
Saturday in SLO, San Diego rolled up 469 yards of total offense and 22 first downs, converting 11-of-20 first downs along the way. Behind the first of three touchdown runs from Jonah Hodges, the Toreros jumped out to a 14-0 lead and never looked back.
Hodges, a senior, finished with 171 yards on 35 carries. Sophomore quarterback Anthony Lawrence completed 26-of-41 passes for 296 yards. He threw an eight-yard touchdown to Justin Priest midway through the first quarter. He also threw a five-yard scoring strike to Brian Riley to put USD up 28-14 with 13 minutes left.
USD took a 14-7 lead into halftime after the first of two touchdown runs by Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe with 1:23 left in the first half. Protheroe’s 7-yard run following J.J. Koski’s 83-yard kick return to open the second half briefly tied the score 14-14.
Hodges scored a touchdown from seven yards out with 8:27 left in the third quarter to give USD a 21-14 lead and the visitors never trailed. Cal Poly felt a glimmer of hope when defensive end Kelly Shepard intercepted a pass and rumbled 63 yards into the end-zone to cut the lead to 28-21 with eight minutes to play.
Because of the wet conditions, Protheroe and Cal Poly quarterback Dano Graves fumbled on a botched mesh on a dive play. San Diego recovered with 4:13. Hodges scored his third touchdown with 2:23 left to put the game on ice.
Cal Poly defeated San Diego 38-13 on September 10 of this season, the sixth straight win by the Mustangs in the series of prestigious California institutions. San Diego rolled through the rest of its schedule, winning eight straight thereafter and pushing the winning streak to nine straight on Saturday.
Protheroe, a two-time first-team All-Big Sky selection, finished with 26 carries for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Graves rushed eight times for one yard and completed 7-of-15 passes for 47 yards. Kori Garcia managed just 15 yards on six carries and Kyle Lewis notched negative-2 yards on two carries.
Cal Poly’s season ends at 7-5. The Mustangs began the campaign 6-2 with wins over USD, South Dakota State and Montana. The losses came at FBS Nevada in overtime and at Big Sky champion North Dakota. But Cal Poly lost three of four down the stretch despite making the playoffs for the first time since 2012.