CEDAR CITY, Utah – Jalen Hamler ran for two touchdowns and his backup, Jake Jeffrey, added another as Cal Poly built a 24-13 lead and held on to edge Southern Utah 24-21 in a Big Sky Conference football opener for both schools Saturday night inside Eccles Coliseum.
The Thunderbirds scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, made the two-point conversion to pull to within three points and had a couple opportunities to take the lead or tie the game, but the first drive was stalled by a personal foul penalty and the second drive ended when Kekoa Sasaoka's 23-yard field goal attempt with 2:10 to play caromed off the left upright.
Cal Poly was able to run out the clock and even its record at 2-2. Southern Utah fell to 1-4.
On a breezy evening with a southwest wind of 30-plus miles per hour, the Mustangs played a nearly flawless first half with no turnovers and a 17-7 lead at the break. After Hamler suffered an injury midway through the third quarter, however, Cal Poly lost three fumbles which fueled Southern Utah's comeback.
"You've got to love winning," said 11th-year Mustang head coach Tim Walsh outside a noisy locker room. "We made it a little tougher than we needed to. We've got to take better care of the football.
"We showed a lot of resiliency, much different than in a 10-minute span against Weber State," Walsh added. "We were able to keep our minds in the game and we played with great confidence and the will to win. That proved to be the difference in this game compared to some of the games we lost in the past. We played with great attitude tonight as well."
Colton Theaker kicked a 36-yard field goal in the first quarter and Hamler ran six and 13 yards for touchdowns in the second quarter as Cal Poly built a 17-7 halftime lead.
Jay Green's 21-yard touchdown run closed the gap to 17-13 in the third quarter, but Jeffrey scored from four yards out early in the fourth quarter to build Cal Poly's lead back to 24-13.
A 56-yard pass play from Chris Helbig to John Mitchell and a two-point conversion run by Lance Lawson with 11:59 to play helped Southern Utah pull to within three points, but the Thunderbirds were unable to get on the scoreboard the rest of the way, disappointing a Homecoming crowd of 7,741.
"This was a great team win and a hard-fought victory on the road," Walsh said. "They had a great crowd. This is a difficult place in which to play. We hadn't won here since 2007."
Southern Utah had a 371-333 advantage in total offense, but Cal Poly compiled a 22-16 edge in first downs and had possession of the ball for over 37 of the game's 60 minutes.
Fullback Duy Tran-Sampson rushed 24 times for 81 yards, Moore contributed 57 yards on five trips, both career highs, and Hamler (pictured above) finished with 65 yards on 20 carries. Hamler also completed two of four passes and Jeffrey connected on both of his attempts. J.J. Koski had all four Mustang catches for 55 yards, including a key 29-yard catch from Jeffrey on third down from midfield to keep alive Cal Poly's drive early in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Matt Shotwell notched nine tackles, including 2.5 for lost yardage, and one pass breakup to lead the Mustangs defensively.
For Southern Utah, Helbig rushed for 43 yards on nine carries and completed 19 of 34 passes for 246 yards and two scores. Lawson caught seven passes for 56 yards. Nela Otukolo earned 17 tackles, AJ Stanley 14 and Alex Sims 12 for the Thunderbirds.
Cal Poly, which did not play a home game in September, returns home next Saturday to host Montana State for another Big Sky game. Kickoff of the Hall of Fame Game is set for 5:05 p.m.