The Cal Poly football team finally played better in the first half.
The Mustangs (2-3) hadn’t yet been able to say that in a season characterized by slow starts and second-half rallies.
But in a 24-10 loss to Yale at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the grass wasn’t exactly greener on the other side of the trend.
Cal Poly racked up 292 offensive yards and scored all of its points before the break in the program’s first gridiron game against an Ivy League opponent, also a first for any Big Sky Conference member.
That second-half surge — one that made two potential FBS blowouts more respectable and led to a comeback victory at Portland State last week?
It never happened.
“When we’ve had bad performances in the past,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said, “we’ve always had the opportunity to battle back, our character started to show. I don’t think we showed good character today as a team, and that’s one of my biggest disappointments.”
Walsh was also unhappy about a season-high four turnovers, which just as well should have been five if not for a dropped interception by Yale in the first half.
Cal Poly’s defense also had unflattering penalties negate third-and-long stops and revitalize scoring drives on back-to-back Yale possessions to start the second half after the Bulldogs had gone 0 for 7 on third downs in the two quarters.
Yale (3-0) leveraged those mistakes for a touchdown and field goal in the third, overcoming a 10-7 halftime deficit and adding an insurance touchdown in the fourth amid a cavalcade of further Cal Poly miscues.
Sophomore quarterback Chris Brown lost a fumble on an ill-advised option pitch early, had two later interceptions and was lucky a third bobbled pass dropped harmlessly to the ground.
The Mustangs also had a punt hit off sophomore receiver Jordan Hines while he blocked with the return team. That ball was recovered by Yale, and only a blocked 31-yard field-goal attempt by senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz kept it from resulting in more points for the Bulldogs.
“We don’t want turnovers,” Brown said, repeating it twice more for emphasis. “And I would say it’s not because of a lack of experience. It’s just fundamentals, staying true to the fundamentals coaches are teaching me and teaching the other players.”
There was a “lack of energy, lack of focus,” he added. “This week, we came out with low energy and that affected us” from the start.
Cal Poly receiver Willie Tucker was lost to a knee injury with 5:59 left in the second quarter, and outside of a 53-second, 37-yard drive to set up a 53-yard go-ahead Bobby Zalud field goal as time expired in the first half, the offense struggled without the junior standout.
Cal Poly had just 37 total yards in the second half and ran just 17 plays.
It was the first time in nearly three years Cal Poly had been shut out in the second half with the production forcing the Mustangs to dredge up memories of the previous occasion, a 21-20 loss to UC Davis in 2010 when Cal Poly had its realistic playoff hopes snuffed by blowing a 20-0 halftime lead.
A six-game home winning streak was snapped as well as a three-year span of scoring more than 10 points in a game.
The biggest bright spot of the second half for the Mustangs — a 73-yard touchdown pass from Brown to true freshman Cameron Akins — was wiped out when the receiver was flagged for lining up incorrectly before streaking wide open down the middle of the field.
Tucker also had a step on his defender early in the game, but Brown overthrew him deep in the end zone.
“They capitalized on all the mistakes that we made, and we made enough,” Walsh said, “probably more than we made all of last season in one game.”
Cal Poly’s lone highlight in the second half was a fourth-quarter interception by Karlton Dennis that was batted in the air at the line.
Otherwise, the accolades went to the Bulldogs, who were playing in only their third game in California.
Yale running back Tyler Varga ran for 114 yards on 26 carries, becoming the fifth running back in the past six games against Cal Poly to break the 100-yard mark after the Mustangs had a previous streak of 19 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
San Diego native Deon Randall caught seven passes for 79 yards and despite the interception, quarterback Henry Furman was 19-of-33 passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns.
Brown was 19-of-26 passing for 104 yards but gained only 40 yards on 20 rushing attempts.
Kristaan Ivory ran for 63 yards on 11 carries and caught a game-high eight passes but gained only 34 yards through the air as the Yale defense swarmed to every play.
“They did a good job in preparation,” Walsh said, “but I don’t think we executed extremely well. I think they had a good plan going in, and they did a good job executing the gameplan.
“Today, they played better than we did and deserved to win, and that’s a flat fact, and it was evident.”