Cats fall to Cal Poly on third California trip

On their third road trip to California of the season, the Montana State Bobcats failed to make the trifecta, falling to the Cal Poly Mustangs 35-27. Even with a bye week full of preparation for the Mustangs’ retro triple option offense, the Cats couldn’t keep up.

From the outset, the game looked like it would be a close one. After MSU stalled out on their first drive of the game, Cal Poly stormed down the field on an impressive 12 play, 91-yard scoring drive. The Cats returned the favor with a nine play drive covering 66 yards for a touchdown, but the drive came at a high price when senior running back Shawn Johnson pulled up on a long run with an apparent hamstring injury.

The teams traded blows for the rest of the first half, including another 90-plus yard drive by the Mustangs. A strange moment occurred late in the half when a Cal Poly touchdown was called back after running back Kori Garcia was flagged for unsportsmanlike behavior when he strutted into the end zone for what would have been his second touchdown of the game. The Bobcats capitalized on his mistake, driving down the field and earning a field goal before halftime to take a 17-14 lead.

The second half followed much the same pattern. After Cal Poly opened with another long touchdown drive, junior running back Anthony Knight put the Bobcats up once again with a four-yard plunge into the end zone. The Mustangs met the challenge with a startlingly quick two play, 71-yard drive on two long runs straight up the gut, putting them up for good.

Freshman Luke Daly closed the gap with a 41-yard field goal, cutting the lead to 28-27 heading into the final quarter, but the Bobcats couldn’t score again. The Bobcats had their chances though. After the offense petered out, MSU Head Coach Rob Ash elected to fake the punt. Erstwhile punter and backup quarterback junior Jake Bleskin executed the fake perfectly, tossing the ball right on target to his receiver for the necessary first down yardage. The play did little to spark the offense back to life, quickly going just three more plays and a real punt this time.

With 10 minutes left in the game, the Cats needed to get a stop and get the ball back with plenty of time to score and hopefully win. That was, until the Mustangs executed easily their best drive of the night and possibly of the season. Cal Poly methodically picked up first down after first down on their backbreaking 17 play, eight minute long march. The drive was nearly perfect and ended with a two-yard run by Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown.

Down 35-27 with just over two minutes to play, sophomore quarterback Dakota Prukop and the MSU offense still had hope. The Cats were able to pick up some yardage and get into scoring range, but faced a fourth-and-2 with just a minute to play on the opponent’s 19 yard line. Instead of just trying to pick up the couple needed yards to continue the drive, the Cats went for it all. But, unlike against Sac State, the Bobcats came up empty when Prukop, faced with a heavy blitz in his face, lobbed the ball off his back foot and was intercepted. The last minute was nothing but a formality.

Prukop finished with 167 yards and an interception in the air and 129 yards on the ground. Knight led the running back corps with two touchdowns on nine carries.

The loss, the Bobcats’ first of the conference schedule, drops them from conference leaders into a six team tie for first place. It looks like the Cats will have to win out the rest of their season to ensure a piece of the conference title. They will face tough opponents during their last three games including a scrappy Portland State, a resurgent Idaho State and of course, the Brawl of the Wild against the University of Montana Grizzlies. The Bobcats will start the final stretch of the 2014 regular season this Saturday at 2:05 p.m. against the Portland State Vikings at Bobcat Stadium.