TIM WALSH | CHRIS NICHOLLS | BIJON SAMOODI
GAME HIGHLIGHTS -- VIDEOBOARD | KSBY
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – Marcus Alford's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter lifted No. 16/19 Northern Arizona to a 17-13 victory over Cal Poly in a Big Sky Conference football game Saturday night before 9,882 in Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Cal Poly had taken a 13-10 lead on a 22-yard field goal by Bobby Zalud on the first play of the final period before Alford gave the visiting Lumberjacks the lead for good with his kickoff return, the seventh touchdown scored by Northern Arizona other than by run or pass this season.
Cal Poly got the ball back four times, but was forced to punt twice, turned the ball over on downs at the Northern Arizona 35 as quarterback Dano Graves was stopped for a two-yard loss by Ryan Reardon, and the Mustangs were intercepted by Austin Hasquet with 2:04 to play.
The Lumberjacks secured one first down and ran out the clock to improve to 6-2 on the year and 4-1 in Big Sky games, alone in third place and a half-game behind Eastern Washington and Montana State, both 4-0 after victories Saturday.
Cal Poly, now 1-9 in its series with Northern Arizona, fell to 3-5 and 2-2 in the Big Sky. The Mustangs beat the Lumberjacks 42-34 in the regular season finale a year ago in Flagstaff to clinch a share of the Big Sky title and a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth.
Andy Wilder opened the scoring for Northern Arizona with a 37-yard field goal less than two minutes into the game after Lucky Dozier recovered a Cal Poly fumble.
The Mustangs answered with a 33-yard run on a reverse around left end by Chris Nicholls for a 7-3 advantage with 6:02 to go in the second quarter.
Patrick Baldenegro caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Chase Cartwright with 47 seconds left to play in the first half, giving Northern Arizona a 10-7 lead. Zalud knotted the score at 10-10 on the final play of the second quarter with a 39-yard field goal.
Cal Poly's only score of the second half was the 22-yard field goal by Zalud. Alford's kickoff return for a touchdown down the left sideline was the first by Northern Arizona this season, but the Lumberjacks also have returned four interceptions and a pair of fumbles for scores.
Despite the loss, Cal Poly compiled advantages of 19-16 in first downs, 352 to 277 in total offense and two minutes in time of possession. In three of the Mustangs' five losses this season, Cal Poly had more yards, first downs and possession time than the opponent.
Cal Poly also won the turnover battle Saturday, 4-2, with two interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries. Northern Arizona had 13 takeaways in its first seven games this season.
Northern Arizona running back Zach Bauman, bidding to be the ninth player in Football Championship Subdivision history to rush for 1,000 or more yards in four consecutive seasons, rushed for 91 yards on 24 carries Saturday and is 25 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark with at least three games remaining in his senior season.
Cartwright completed 16 of 31 passes for 177 yards and one score. RJ Rickert and Dejzon Walker both caught three passes for the Lumberjacks.
For Cal Poly, Graves was the top rusher with 86 yards on 18 carries. Nicholls added 73 yards on nine trips, scoring the lone Mustang touchdown of the game.
Graves completed 11 of 22 passes for 115 yards, with Cole Stanford his favorite target, catching four passes for 66 yards. Junior slotback Kristaan Ivory carried the ball on Cal Poly's first offensive play of the game, gaining three yards, before sitting out the rest of the game with an ankle injury he had suffered the week before at Montana.
Hasquet notched 12 tackles, Dozier 11 and Steve Garcia 10 for Northern Arizona.
Cal Poly's defensive leaders were senior tackle Sullivan Grosz with nine stops and linebackers Johnny Millard and Cameron Ontko along with safety Alex Hubbard, each with seven. Jordan Williams and Bijon Samoodi recorded the interceptions while Hubbard and Vante Smith-Johnson recovered Northern Arizona fumbles.
Cal Poly visits UC Davis in the renewal of The Horseshoe Classic next Saturday at 4:05 p.m. in Aggie Stadium.