Four yards per play.
That’s what the Cal Poly offense gained in a season-opening 38-16 victory over visiting nonscholarship FCS program San Diego on Saturday night — if you take away five specific snaps.
Quick passes and bruising runs characterized the Mustangs’ offense for much of the night. But those five plays changed the entire complexion of the game.
Junior slotback Kristaan Ivory had touchdown runs of 81 and 61 yards. Senior fullback Akaninyene Umoh ran one in from 45 yards. Senior slotback Cole Stanford hauled in a diving 31-yard catch, and junior receiver Willie Tucker had a 74-yard catch.
“Boom, a big play,” Tucker said, “All of a sudden, you’ve got the defense thinking, ‘Is it going to be the 4-yard pound that they’ve been doing, the short passes they’ve been doing?’ But also when we hit them deep, their brain starts going everywhere. They get rattled, it’s a great change-up for the offense.”
Ivory, Tucker and junior quarterback Vince Moraga had terrific starts to the season, and after a so-so first half, the Mustangs defense began to dominate in the second, leading Cal Poly into a matchup at defending Mountain West Conference co-champion Fresno State next week.
Against the Toreros (0-1), the Mustangs had to come around. Several key linemen spent most of spring practice and fall camp standing on the sideline during full-contact situations, and players and coaches acknowledged the rust after the game.
And, Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, offensive coordinator and first-year play-caller Saga Tuitele stuck to a specific first-half script before attacking San Diego’s weaknesses in the second half, when the Mustangs outscored the Toreros 21-6 to pull away.
“In the first half,” Walsh said, “coach T tried to run our entire offense because we wanted in the first game to get Vince comfortable with the whole thing. We knew we had things we could exploit. We still wanted to run our offense to get practice at it.
“In the second half, I said, ‘OK, now it’s a one-touchdown game. Let’s go play,’ and we came out, and I think we could have scored more, to be honest with you.”
Moraga, a fifth-year junior who’s had both a grayshirt and redshirt season, shined stepping in for former two-year starter Andre Broadous.
Moraga had a few poorly thrown balls, but after beating out three others in an even quarterback competition that raged all offseason and wasn’t settled until the final week of fall camp, he was 15-of-21 passing for 226 yards.
Though he did not have a touchdown pass, Moraga’s total was more than Broadous had in any single game and stands as the highest single-game total since Tony Smith passed for 231 yards in a 41-33 victory over St. Francis (Pa.) on Oct. 30, 2010.
“There were a couple of throws he wished he probably had back that I think he kind of underthrew a little bit,” Walsh said, “but overall, his decision-making process was good. I was pretty happy with the way Vince played.”
Moraga added 38 yards on nine carries. Second-string quarterback Dano Graves entered the game for the final two Cal Poly possessions and was 0-for-3 passing and ran three times for minus-1 yards.
Ivory had an 81-yard touchdown run on the Mustangs’ first play from scrimmage in the first quarter. He finished with a career-high 185 yards and three touchdowns while replacing former 1,500-yard rusher Deonte Williams.
Tucker had a career-high seven catches to go with 113 yards; his 74-yard catch coming in the fourth quarter. He was caught from behind at the 5-yard line, but Stanford ran it in from 4 yards two plays later.
Though the big plays characterized the game, the Cal Poly offense was inconsistent early on.
The Mustangs were short on a fourth-and-2 play near midfield in the first quarter, and passed up trying to make similar conversion attempts in favor of punting on two of their next three drives.
San Diego, meanwhile, dominated time of possession in the first half, holding the ball for 18:27 of the 30 minutes.
The Toreros had 190 yards of total offense in the first half, scoring on drives of nine and seven plays and tying the score at 10 before Ivory gave Cal Poly some breathing room with his 2-yard touchdown run with nine seconds left before the break.
In the third quarter, the Mustangs defense held San Diego to just 67 yards — 1 on the ground as the offense scored on consecutive drives.
“We can’t rely on the offense,” said senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz, who sat out much of training camp with a foot injury. “We need to be able to stop offenses no mater what and give our offense the opportunity to make plays. And if they can’t and punt the ball away, then whatever. We need to get back out there and stop them.”