FRESNO — Most of the 33,260 in Bulldog Stadium had already made for the parking lot.
It must have been just as easy for Cal Poly football supporters to give up on the Mustangs as it was for the Fresno State faithful to go searching for car keys.
A 34-point halftime deficit on the scoreboard and a 198-yard disadvantage in total offense on the scoresheet didn’t inspire much confidence in Cal Poly.
But by the time the game was over, the Mustangs (1-1) had outgained the Bulldogs (2-0), pulled to within a couple of scores and forced Fresno State to summon stars from the bench to put the final punctuation mark on a 41-25 victory Saturday night.
Cal Poly might have found a new quarterback, too.
“We’re not happy that it’s 41-25,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said, “but I’m proud about how we played in the second half. We could have folded up and got beat 68 to nothing. At least we came out and fought the fight, made it 41-25, and we were calling timeouts to get back in the game. They had to bring their starters back in the game, and I’m sure that’s not what he wanted to do.”
Bulldogs head coach Tim DeRuyter pulled senior star quarterback Derek Carr in the third quarter, when Fresno State had a 41-3 lead and Cal Poly was just breathing a sigh of relief over ending the possibility it would not be shut out for the first time in 14 years.
To that point, the game had been a worst-case scenario for the Mustangs — as if everything drawn up by the coaching staff played out in the exact opposite of its intention.
Then Cal Poly got a spark when sophomore Chris Brown entered the game at quarterback.
Junior Vince Moraga, named the starter after a heated four-way competition throughout the offseason, had a successful start in the opener against San Diego.
He had engineered just the one field goal drive Saturday as the Fresno State defense overpowered the Mustangs across the board.
But with about five minutes left in the third quarter, Moraga took a hard hit from Fresno State redshirt freshman safety Dalen Jones and stayed down.
Trainers began examining his right knee, and after limping off the field, Moraga was seen with ice wrapped around the joint and laying prone on a stretcher for the rest of the game.
Until tests can confirm the injury, coaches fear that he may have torn the ACL in his right knee and could be lost for the season.
In his second career start, Moraga finished 6-of-12 passing for 60 yards and rushed for six yards on eight attempts.
Brown came in to lead quick-strike touchdown drives of 27, 70 and 85 yards, albeit against the Bulldogs’ backups.
Brown hit Willie Tucker for a 7-yard touchdown catch and later found Tucker on a 50-yard bomb. Brown capped his second scoring drive with a 22-yard touchdown scramble where he reversed field and outran the defense up the left sideline.
He capped scoring with a 1-yard TD run with 4:44 left.
“Time to get in there and make something happen,” Brown said recalling the vision of Moraga being helped from the field. “Try to get your team together and say put your trust in me as I put my trust in you, and let’s make something happen.
“It felt good, but nobody likes losing. I feel like I could have always done better.”
Brown finished 9-of-15 passing for 184 yards and a touchdown. He ran 10 times for 39 yards. Junior running back Kristaan Ivory ran for a game-high 97 yards on 20 carries as the Cal Poly defense kept the Fresno State running game mostly in check.
The Bulldogs had 162 rushing yards and totaled 370 yards from scrimmage. Cal Poly gained 416 yards, including 172 on the ground.
Carr was 22-of-31 passing for 205 yards and three touchdowns, and receiver Isaiah Burse added a touchdown catch to go with two punt returns for touchdowns before the early exit.
But after Brown’s heroics, Carr was sent back out on the field in the final five minutes to help ensure there was no miracle comeback.
It was a separate bad break that allowed Brown to enter the game in the first place. Second-string quarterback Dano Graves injured his ankle in backup duty in the season opener against San Diego and was unable to practice for most of the week.
Graves did not make the trip, and Brown served as the backup with redshirt freshman Tanner Trosin being the third-string emergency quarterback.
The quarterback performance brought back memories of the 2010 game between the programs.
Andre Broadous made his first start at quarterback as a sophomore for Cal Poly in that game, and though he had just 18 yards passing and touchdown in a 38-17 loss, Broadous had a game-high 82 yards on 25 carries and showed flashes of the brilliance he would come to be known for.
With Moraga on the shelf indefinitely, Brown may have played himself into the starting spot in the same way Broadous, then battling Tony Smith for playing time, did in 2010.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’ve got some similarities,” Walsh said. “If I could have Andre Broadous the rest of my coaching career, I’d be a pretty happy dude. And if we think Chris Brown can be that, obviously, I’m going to be a pretty happy guy. I think he did some really good things in his first ballgame and his first opportunity tonight. I think he’ll grow because of the mistakes that he made, and I think he’ll add some confidence because of the things that he did.”