This time, there was no need for a 20-point rally for Cal Poly football.
However, the losing streak extended to three in a row for the Mustangs, falling to North Dakota 30-26 at Spanos Stadium on Saturday night.
In the last two weeks, Cal Poly needed a 21-point rally to comeback against Montana State before losing in overtime 34-28, plus had to bounce back from an early 24-0 deficit against UC Davis in the 48-24 road defeat.
But this time, the Mustangs and Fighting Hawks exchanged leads three times. Although, Cal Poly lost a late 23-14 lead during the second half to fall to 2-5 overall.
The Fighting Hawks took advantage of blown coverage and what Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh called bad eye awareness. Quarterback Nate Ketteringham found Alex Cloyd all alone on the right side of the field while facing fourth-and-two, and Cloyd trekked his way to the end zone for the 39-yard score with less than 1:50 left in the fourth.
“It was a great play call on their part, but it was poor eyes on our part,” Walsh said of that play. “They made a good play, but our guys got caught in the moment and let their eyes wander. When your eyes wander, bad things happen in this game.”
Cal Poly never converted a first down during its last offensive series. The final play saw quarterback Jalen Hamler call his own number and try to get the first down with his legs. However, he was forced out of bounds a couple yards shy of the first down marker — leading to the turnover on downs.
Walsh was proud of how his guys have played in the last three weeks yet cited how there’s been an inability to finish out games.
“You look at the last three weeks, we’ve had opportunities to win all three games. We didn’t take advantage of any of them,” Walsh said. “But I love our guys. Our guys came back from a tough loss this week and our guys came back from two weeks ago after a tough loss. This one is different because we played really hard, but we made too many mistakes that cost us a chance to win. They made less mistakes than we did.”
Cal Poly started fast and executed back-to-back plays that stretched past 20 yards: A 22-yard catch by J.J Koski that required him to keep both feet in bounds near the sidelines and a 29-yard run by Drew Hernandez on an option pitch. The final result on that drive was a Colton Theaker field goal for the game’s first points.
Duy Tran-Sampson added some power and grit on the next Mustang offensive possession. He picked three first downs on dive plays up the middle. Cal Poly’s second drive, though, resulted in a punt.
During the third drive, Koski picked up a key 14-yard catch that brought the football near the North Dakota 10. Hamler then called his own number, went up the middle and scored from five yards out, swinging the lead back Cal Poly’s way 10-7.
Koski added to the aerial total with under a minute left in the second, collecting a 20-yard catch that brought the Mustang offense to the Fighting Hawks’ 10-yard line. Hamler capped the drive with a 5-yard run up the middle, building the lead to 17-7.
But the Mustangs couldn’t hang on to their double-digit lead in the end.
Tran-Sampson had a breakout evening of 40 carries, 173 yards and one touchdown as he handled the inside dive and blast runs. Tran-Sampson saw North Dakota key up on the outside pitches — helping lead to his huge evening.
“North Dakota was very wary of our pitch game, so they were flowing wide,” Tran-Sampson said. “That opened up a lot for me.”
The Mustangs have dealt with one of the tougher schedules in the FCS realm during their 2-5 start — facing FCS playoff team Weber State on the road, going on the road against an Oregon State team that stunned Cal on Saturday in Berkeley and in the last two games before facing North Dakota, back-to-back contests against highly ranked Montana State and UC Davis.
Tran-Sampson, though, doesn’t want his team to take a “woe is me” approach.
“The past is the past,” Tran-Sampson said. “You can’t change it. You can only think about the future. So, there’s no sense of dwelling on a loss.”
Concluded Walsh: “We’re not going to beat teams 56-6. We’re a team that has to win the close games.”
Cal Poly plays another home game next week, hosting Sacramento State on Mustang Family Weekend. Kickoff in Alex G. Spanos Stadium is set for 5:05 p.m.