Tim Walsh has played his former team once before.
The Cal Poly football head coach welcomed Portland State — a program he guided for 14 seasons — to San Luis Obispo with a 37-25 Mustangs victory last season.
Now, it’s time for the return trip, a home game of sorts not just for Walsh but for the handful of assistants with strong Portland ties and their friends and family, too.
Walsh’s wife, Jody, is planning to be at Jeld-Wen Field for today’s Big Sky Conference opener against the Vikings (3-1). So are the couple’s adult children Luke (33), Casey (28), Sean (28) and Megan (19).
“To them, it’s home,” Walsh said. “To our four children if you ask them that, they’re going to say Portland, Oregon, is where they grew up. So, I think it will be fun for them to be with their friends and go to the game.”
Offensive coordinator Saga Tuitele, receivers coach Jim Craft, quarterbacks coach Juston Wood and defensive backs coach Neil Fendall all played for Walsh at Portland State, and running backs coach Aristotle Thompson had a legendary high school career in Portland before going on to play at Boise State.
All figure to have their own rooting sections of people that haven’t been able to see their current team play on the Central Coast.
Walsh ushered the program in its transition from Division II to Division I, made three straight Division II playoff appearances, and earned one FCS playoff berth. Owner of a program record 90 victories, Walsh was elected to the university’s hall of fame last year.
He’s responsible for three Vikings victories over Cal Poly in 1993, ’98 and ’99. Tuitele and Craft were on the team that beat the Mustangs 41-34 in 1998, Wood rose to prominence shortly after, and Fendall was a key player on the mid-90s teams that transitioned to Division I.
Wood was a first-team all-Big Sky quarterback in 2001 and a two-time academic All-American before spending training camp and a preseason with the Minnesota Vikings and moving on to a career in the Arena Football League.
“As a coaching staff, we know what to expect going there, we’re comfortable there. We’ve got family and friends, which is exciting for us,” Wood said. San Luis Obispo “isn’t the easiest place for people to travel to.
“Even though we were at one point Vikings, those people close to us have become Mustangs because we’re here. And so they’re excited to get a chance to come and support us. That part of it is cool, but outside of that, we haven’t talked at all about the Portland State side of it.”
Nostalgia aside, Cal Poly (1-2) has enough to worry about between the lines.
The Vikings have been one of the most impressive programs in the country so far this season.
One of only three teams in the 13-team Big Sky with three victories in the first four weeks, Portland State’s lone defeat was a 37-30 loss to Cal where the Vikings held the lead from their opening drive and into the final five minutes of the second quarter.
Senior running back DJ Adams ran for 139 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Kieran McDonagh passed for 308 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score as Portland State had a season-low 553 yards of total offense.
On the season, the Vikings lead the FCS with 328 rushing yards per game and rank second with 612 total yards per game.
By contrast, Cal Poly’s 2008 offense — then led by record-setters Ramses Barden, Jonathan Dally and James Noble and two-time All-America lineman Stephen Field — racked up an FCS-leading 487.5 yards per game.
Two of Portland State’s victories have come against lower-level competition, Division II Humboldt State and Eastern Oregon of the NAIA.
While the Mustangs’ two losses have come against top-25 FBS program Fresno State and fellow Mountain West Conference member Colorado State, Walsh did not discount Portland State’s performance.
“You’re at over 600 yards four games in a row,” Walsh said, “it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. That’s incredible. Those are incredible numbers.
“They can hurt you equally well with the run or the pass. They churn away at you, and then they make huge plays.”
Portland State’s attack may start with the run. The Vikings have some option packages out of a pistol formation.
But the passing game has plenty of big-play potential. McDonagh passed for a career-high 377 yards in a 43-6 victory over Humboldt State, and his receiving corps appears very deep.
Leading receiver Kasey Closs has a team-high 20 catches and averages 24.6 yards per reception with five touchdowns. Though the rest of the team has had just two touchdown catches, four receivers are averaging more than 25.5 yards per catch.
“They’ve had a lot of running yards,” Cal Poly junior middle linebacker Nick Dzubnar said, “but last season they came out, and the first four plays were all trick plays.
“Two of them were flea-flickers, right off the bat, and those were big plays, they scored on us with a couple of those. But we didn’t let it get to us.
“It’s truly an assignment game for our defense. If everyone does our assignment, we’ll be alright.”