San Luis Obispo, CA–San Diego stunned Cal Poly 35-21 at a wet and muddy Alex G. Spanos Stadium in front of 3,356 fans in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The win was the Toreros’ first playoff victory ever and USD’s first win all-time over Cal Poly.
It was also the Pioneer Football League’s first playoff victory after the league was awarded an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs in 2013.
The Toreros were making their second trip to the FCS playoffs. In the prior contest in 2014, USD was eliminated by Montana 52-14 in the first round.
It was the second ever postseason victory for USD. The Toreros defeated Monmouth in the Grid Iron Classic in 2006 in a postseason bowl game that pitted the Pioneer League champion versus the Northeast Conference champion that ran from 2006 to 2009. This was the postseason game these two league champions played prior to gaining FCS playoff eligibility.
The Toreros were previously winless against Cal Poly in five meetings, including a 38-16 loss earlier this season. USD avenged its only blemish in what now stands with a 10-1 record.
“In past games with Cal Poly we’ve always played well for three good quarters, but not in the fourth quarter” said USD head coach Dale Lindsey. “Today our kids played very solid and evenly throughout the game. We’ve always had great respect for Cal Poly and if you don’t bring you’re A game, they do. And luckily for us we brought our A game today. To be in the playoffs is exciting for all of us.”
USD used senior running back Jonah Hodges’ legs and sophomore quarterback Anthony Lawrence’s arm to earn the victory.
Hodges carried 35 times for 171 yards, including three touchdowns. He also pulled down seven catches for 37 yards.
Lawrence completed 26 of 41 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
The Toreros opened the game with an impressive 5-play, 73-yard drive that was finished off with an 8-yard TD run from senior Jonah Hodges. He had opened the drive with a 46-yard run up the right side of the field as the key play in the scoring drive.
On Cal Poly’s second play from scrimmage, Jamal Newman’s hit on Mustang full back Joe Protheroe forced a fumble and linebacker Alec Moreno recovered on the Mustang 8-yard line.
Lawrence found wide receiver Justin Priest open in the right corner of the end zone on next play from scrimmage for a 14-0 USD lead with 6:42 to go in the first quarter.
Cal Poly (7-5) would get on the scoreboard with 1:23 to go in the half on a 7-yard run from Protheroe to cut the USD lead to 14-7. Cal Poly’s 8-play, 32-yard drive was set-up following an Anthony Lawrence interception near midfield that was picked off by Kitu Humphrey.
“It was rough out there today,” said senior running back Jonah Hodges. “I thought our offensive line did a great job getting me some space to run in. We knew both teams were going to have a tough time cutting on the wet field, so our plan was to just chip away and try to establish a running game, as well as get our passing game going.”
The second half began with Cal Poly’s J.J. Koski returning the kickoff 85 yards and Protheroe busting into the endzone on the first play from scrimmage from 7-yards out to tie the score at 14-14.
The Toreros retook the lead with 8:22 to go in the third quarter. Jonah Hodges scored from 7 yards out for his second score of the game to push the score to 21-14.
A big defensive stop for the Toreros came with 3:42 to go in the 3rd period. The Mustangs faced a 4th-and-2 from the San Diego 24-yard line. Linebacker Nic Henson dropped Cal Poly quarterback Dano Graves short of the first down and the Toreros took over on their own 23-yard line.
The Toreros scored on the ensuing possession with a 5-yard scoring pass from Lawrence to senior wide out Brian Riley with 13:09 left in the game to extend USD’s lead to 28-14.
The Mustangs pulled to within 28-21 with 8:07 to go when defensive end Kelly Shepard intercepted Lawrence at the Cal Poly 37-yard line and returned it 63 yards for the score.
Cal Poly would force a three-and-out on USD’s next possession, taking over at its own 39-yard line with 6:28 left. The Torero defense, however, would rise again. This time the Toreros recover another Protheroe fumble near midfield. The loose ball was finally snatched by Torero end Spencer Hammitt at the San Diego 32-yard line.
Facing a 3rd-and-4 on this ensuing possession at the Cal Poly 38-yard line USD did not play it safe. Lawrence connected with Riley for a long 43-yard completion down to the Mustang 19-yard line. Lawrence then connected with tight end Ross Dwelley for a first down to the 5-yard line and Hodges iced the game on the next play 5 yards out for his third rushing score of the game to make it 35-21.
“They deserve all the credit,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “They totally outplayed us tonight.”
The San Diego defense that had allowed the fewest points the FCS during the regular season certainly lived up to the high ranking in this game. The Toreros held the FCS top rushing attack to a season-low 155 yards rushing on 48 carries.
The Toreros advance to the second round next Saturday at top seeded and five-time national champion North Dakota State.