FRESNO — Head coach Tim Walsh is back on the losing side of another road game, but putting a scare in Fresno State on Saturday before eventually falling 38-17 wasn’t quite the same as the average second-half swoon against UC Davis.
The Mustangs used Andre Broadous’ first-career touchdown pass and leveraged an untimely Bulldogs turnover into a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Rodgers — both in the final minute of the second quarter — to creep back into the game after falling behind 21-3 to make it 21-17 at halftime.
They were overmatched and outscored 17-0 in the second half, but that glimmer of hope the Mustangs got before the half seemed everlasting.
“Our team played with a lot of effort,” said Rodgers, who ran 14 times for 72 yards and averaged 25 yards on six kickoff returns. “We played with a lot of effort. I hope the coaches are satisfied. We came in prepared. We just need to execute more.”
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The tipping point came when Fresno State finished off the third quarter with a 12-play, 98-yard drive, wearing down the smaller Cal Poly defensive front in the process.
Of the Bulldogs’ 253 yards on the ground, 179 came in the second half.
“The number one thing is we asked our guys to play hard,” Walsh said, “and I think we played hard. I think we wore out a little bit as their size and girth and their speed got to us in the second half.
“From an effort standpoint, I found out that our team does have a lot of courage.”
Walsh’s staff had dropped seven straight on the road before beating McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., a week ago. Broadous got his first career start in the 40-14 win over the Cowboys and followed it up with another admirable effort.
Playing against his first Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, Broadous only completed three passes for 18 yards — one a 10-yard touchdown pass to Dominique Johnson — but with an offense that already pass blocks at a minimum having four starting caliber linemen on the sideline, the game was mostly up to his legs.
Broadous had a career-high 25 carries for 82 yards when no player on either team had more than 14 carries.
Fresno State was led by former Cal transfer Tracy Slocum, who had 71 yards and a touchdown on eight runs, and sophomore Robbie Rouse, who finished with 70 yards and a score on 14 carries.
“It was definitely exciting for me coming out, second start on the road against Fresno State,” Broadous said. “All this red and the noise. I was kind of pumped just walking out.”
The game won’t be remembered anywhere near as fondly as Cal Poly’s one-point overtime loss to Wisconsin in 2008 or the Mustangs’ last-second win at San Diego State earlier that season.
But the reality was that the game was on its way to getting much more out of hand.
When Fresno State’s Isaiah Burse, a receiver who scored the game’s first touchdown on a 58-yard pass from Ryan Colburn, blocked a Chris Pinto punt in the end zone, the game was on an early track to a blowout.
Bulldogs cornerback Desia Dunn recovered the blocked punt by picking up the ball and toeing the back line of the end zone, and Fresno State led 21-3 with 4:59 left in the first half.
Cal Poly hadn’t had a blocked punt result in a touchdown by an opponent since an 18-14 win over Southern Utah in 2006.
The Mustangs responded with an 11-play, 73-yard drive capped by Johnson’s touchdown with 46 seconds left in the second quarter feeling fortunate to have cut the lead to 21-10, but they would feel even better in a minute.
A clipping penalty on the ensuing kickoff pinned Fresno State deep in its own territory, and defensive tackle James Chen ended up with the ball on the Bulldogs’ 1-yard line after a fumbled exchange on a handoff to Slocum.
Two plays later, Rodgers ran around the right edge for his fourth rushing touchdown of the season to cut the lead to 21-17.
Not content to kneel on the ball after a kick return by Jalen Saunders gave them the ball near midfield, the Bulldogs went for a pass and gave Cal Poly another chance to score.
Mustangs defensive end Gavin Cooper got into the backfield to strip Colburn and recover the fumble.
The Cooper fumble didn’t result in any points, but Cal Poly’s first score, a 30-yard field goal that gave the Mustangs a 3-0 lead with 5:15 left in the first quarter, was set up by another huge defensive play — a trend that had been present in their previous two victories.
Interception returns keyed both the victory over McNeese State and the Mustangs’ comeback win over then-No. 1 Montana in the second week of the season.
Colburn looked deep to receiver A.J. Johnson on a play-action pass near midfield, and Johnson got by Nico Molino on a deep post to grab the ball.
In midair, Cal Poly safety Greg Francis came over to pop out the ball, and Mustangs cornerback Asa Jackson grabbed it on the fly inside the Cal Poly 10-yard line, cut to the left sideline and returned his second interception of the season all the way past midfield.
“We’re tough,” Walsh said. “We’ve got a lot of resiliency in us and we’ll come back to be a good football team against people we’re supposed to be good against.”