SAN LUIS OBISPO, California — Some Cal Poly defenders hunched over, hands on their knees. Another put his hands on his head. Others stood still, frozen in the moment when they still had a chance to win.
They watched Montana State players spill onto the Alex G. Spanos Stadium field. MSU senior captain Derek Marks hugged teammate after teammate. Others ran around in random directions. Others calmly walked toward the middle of the field.
Both the Mustangs and Bobcats had several chances to win on Saturday night. But MSU was the one to capitalize.
After all, Marks said, the Bobcats are built for this.
After watching a 21-point lead disappear, the No. 6-ranked Bobcats vanquished the threat of an upset loss to Cal Poly when Travis Jonsen scampered in for a game-winning touchdown from 9 yards out in a 34-28 MSU triumph in overtime.
“It’s a crazy feeling how these guys don’t flinch,” Jonsen said. “We’re so confident. When we say we’re going to win, we’re going to win.”
The Bobcats had plenty to be confident about early.
After MSU’s opening possession resulted in a punt, the Mustangs converted multiple third and fourth downs to drive into MSU territory. And the 94-yard, 20-play possession ended when Cal Poly quarterback Jalen Hamler found J.J. Koski on a 26-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone.
The Bobcats had trailed early in three of their other five games, though. They were comfortable with a deficit.
They marched 75 yards on the following drive. On fourth down and 6, MSU quarterback Tucker Rovig hit Kevin Kassis, who made a spectacular catch in the back of the end zone, on a 10-yard touchdown to tie the game.
“Tucker put it up there, and I just wanted to go up and make a play,” Kassis said. “I pride myself on making those tough catches, and I was lucky enough to come down with it.”
After forcing another Cal Poly punt, the Bobcats drove 87 yards in 13 plays. They leaned on the strength of their offensive line and capped that possession on a QB sneak by Rovig on fourth down just a couple inches away from the goal line.
In the second half, Jahque Alleyne, who missed the first half after being called for targeting last week, returned a punt to Cal Poly’s 40. A pair of long runs by Isaiah Ifanse, who hadn’t played the since the second week of the season, set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Logan Jones to give the Bobcats a 21-7 lead.
The Bobcats capped 28 straight points with Jonsen’s 13-yard scoring run. Jonsen finished with 85 rushing yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns. He also caught three passes for 70 yards.
“I think he makes defensive coordinators not look too good,” Kassis said with a smile. ”Just a solid kid, a solid guy, a solid player who makes plays.”
Then Cal Poly’s comeback began. Hamler threw a pinpoint pass to Quentin Harrison for a 31-yard touchdown.
A Bobcats three-and-out possession combined with a 6-yard punt by Jered Padmos set Cal Poly up at MSU’s 38 with 13:33 to go. A fourth-and-1 sneak by Hamler slashed MSU’s lead to seven points.
Then a few minutes later, Rovig threw an interception to Cal Poly’s Carter Nichols, who returned it to MSU’s 16. And the Mustangs tied it up on a 3-yard touchdown run by Drew Hernandez with 7:05 to go.
A three-touchdown lead, evaporated in less than eight minutes. Cal Poly’s triple option offense had worn away at the Bobcats.
“We need to clean some things up, obviously, and stay out of these close games,” Marks said. “But I’m proud of the way we competed and of the way we rose up in the end.”
This was unlike the Bobcats (5-1, 2-0 Big Sky). They usually fall behind early, then storm back. They had outscored opponents 110-41 after intermission through five games.
And the Mustangs (2-3, 1-1) were starting to beat the Bobcats at their own game.
Kassis was beginning to have flashbacks to MSU’s loss to Sacramento State in 2016. The Hornets scored 20 points in the fourth quarter to win by three.
“It was a similar situation, and we folded,” Kassis said. “It didn’t work out, but not today. Things have changed.”
The Bobcats went three-and-out again, and Cal Poly had the ball with over five minutes left.
But Marks refused to let the Mustangs go anywhere. He made three straight tackles, forcing Cal Poly to punt.
The Bobcats followed by driving 31 yards in under three minutes, setting up for a 50-yard field goal by Tristan Bailey.
But it was well short.
“Can’t get too high or too low,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate said. “It is what it is. You’ve got to go play the next play.”
As regulation came to a close, Marks reminded his teammates they were built for this scenario. They had trained intensely throughout the summer to be the better conditioned team. They had game planned, watched film and practiced to defend Cal Poly.
And that preparation was evident in overtime.
The Bobcats were more physical. Chase Benson stuffed Duy Tran-Sampson, Cal Poly’s fullback who totaled a game-high 97 rushing yards, at the line of scrimmage on first down.
The Bobcats were more disciplined. A Cal Poly false start set the team back before Marks tackled Hamler for a 3-yard loss on second down.
The Bobcats were more sound. They maintained their gaps and stopped Hamler’s third-down run after 2 yards.
And the Bobcats were more composed. Cal Poly kicker Colton Theaker missed his 48-yard field goal attempt wide right on fourth down.
Any MSU points would mean a win. On first down, Jonsen rushed for 7 yards. On second, he ran for 9.
A win for MSU seemed inevitable for the first time all night. On the final play of the game, Jonsen found pay dirt from 9 yards out.
All the Mustangs could do was watch the Bobcats celebrate. And that was something MSU was built for.
“We got to overtime, and the defense said they were going to stop them. They stopped them,” Jonsen said. “We said we were going to score, we scored.
“I love my team. I love how they have faith, and it was a great win.”