MISSOULA, Mont. — Sitting in the postgame press conference, his voice still hoarse, Tim Walsh told reporters the Cal Poly football team had two of the best practices he’s been a part of in his more than two decades of coaching in the days leading up to Saturday’s season opener.
Perhaps it was “a great week of practice” that helped the Mustangs deliver a resilient performance in front of more than 26,000 maroon-and gray-clad fans on a wet and windy night at raucous Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Maybe it was the leftover scraps of frustration stemming from a 2014 season that ended with two late losses and derailed Cal Poly’s aspirations of making the FCS playoffs.
Whatever the source of motivation, the Mustangs found a way to outlast the favored Grizzlies, who were one week removed from upsetting the No. 1-ranked and four-time defending national champion North Dakota State Bison on the same field.
By the time the final whistle blew, it was Cal Poly 20, Montana 19.
“This is something that means so much, not just to me, but to the alumni that have played here,” fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Brown said. “I talked to before the game maybe five or six players that called me just expressing how important this game was to them and to this team and how much we deserved it.
“Honestly, I couldn’t be more proud of the guys on defense and on offense that came and showed up and trusted each other. This is a great win.”
The Mustangs (1-0) had only won in Missoula once in their previous 12 trips, the last victory coming during the first round of the FCS playoffs in 2005. But for the second straight season, Cal Poly got the better of a nationally ranked Griz team.
Unlike the victory in 2014 — when Brown powered his way to a career-high 226 rushing yards — Saturday’s game eventually came down to the right leg of an unheralded redshirt freshman.
When Alex Vega trotted onto the field to attempt a 49-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining in a game already marred by a couple special teams miscues, his mindset was simple.
“The G-rated version was,” Vega said, “ ‘just don’t screw up.’ ”
The former walk-on from Gilroy split the uprights — with a few yards to spare, no less — and sent the Mustangs’ sideline into a frenzy. The first field goal attempt of Vega’s collegiate career was true from the moment it left his foot, surpassing his previous career-best make of 37 yards set in high school.
“Alex has proven to have the strongest leg and I thought he’d have the best opportunity to take it,” Walsh said. “I was concerned that it was going to be his first college field goal, but what a first college field goal. Congratulations to him.”
When senior kicker Stephen Pyle was injured early last year, the kicking game was a proverbial question mark that lingered over the rest of Cal Poly’s season. The Mustangs only attempted two field goals in 12 games a year ago, and they matched that total Saturday.
Pyle overcame a couple of short punts to make a career-long 48-yard field goal midway through the third quarter. That kick capped a 17-play, 42-yard drive to start the second half and gave Cal Poly’s defense an extended rest after Montana ran 56 plays in the first two quarters.
Walsh was quick to credit his defensive coaching staff for their game planning against a Griz team that piled up more than 550 yards and 38 points against North Dakota State seven days earlier.
Middle linebacker Tu’uta Inoke had 16 tackles and forced two fumbles. Cornerback Chris Fletcher made 10 tackles, and linebackers R.J. Mazolewski and Joseph Gigantino added nine apiece.
It was an opportunistic effort all around defensively that led to Montana’s four turnovers, including three interceptions by safety B.J. Nard.
In his first game in nearly four years, Nard positioned himself in the right place at the right time to come out on the receiving end of several arrant Brady Gustafson passes. Though Gustafson finished with 353 passing yards on 64 attempts, Montana’s offense was kept out of the end zone the entire second half.
“I thought we looked extremely fast on the defensive side of the ball and that’s what we preach,” Walsh said. “We’re not the biggest by any stretch of the imagination, but we play fast, we play hard.
“Players have to believe in what they’re being taught and I think our players truly believed in the game plan.”