PORTLAND, Ore. — The Cal Poly football team still hasn’t figured out its first halves, but the Mustangs have figured out their title fate is on the line now.
Cal Poly got the second half it needed to keep from getting derailed in the Big Sky Conference and secure a victory that meant a little extra for the Cal Poly coaches who once called Jeld-Wen Field home.
Junior slotback Kristaan Ivory ran for 184 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 32 carries, sophomore quarterback Chris Brown added a career-high 129 yards and a touchdown on the ground, plus a 54-yard fourth-quarter scoring pass to fullback Akaninyene Umoh, and the Mustangs topped Portland State 38-34 with a furious second-half comeback Thursday night.
Like it had against two previous nonconference FBS opponents, Cal Poly was in a double-digit deficit in the first half. The Mustangs fell behind 21-7 at the half, and that’s when reality hit.
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For players like offensive tackle Giovanni Sani and the rest of the seniors, every conference game is a little more important in the chase for a second straight Big Sky title and the FCS playoff race.
“Giovanni Sani said some great things at halftime,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said, “and I followed them up with one play at a time. Gio just got on them and said ‘I’ve been here for five years. I didn’t come back for my fifth year not to win a championship. We’re not playing like we’re capable of playing. We gotta go out and play.’ ”
It was a game that got testy at times, with players complaining to officials and fans griping about controversial calls and non-calls.
In the end, Cal Poly walked away with the victory, yes, but Walsh and company also relished a victorious return to the town that many of them built their foundations.
Before a two-year stint as the offensive coordinator at Army that preceded his hiring in San Luis Obispo, Walsh was the head coach of the Vikings for 14 seasons.
Assistants Saga Tuitele, Juston Wood, Neil Fendall and Jason Craft all played for Walsh at Portland State. Running backs coach Aristotle Thompson is a Portland native and was a prep star in town.
The group had plenty of supporters to root them on.
“Right now, it was about our 2013 Mustang team,” Walsh said. “At 12:30 tonight, I might look back on it and say it was pretty satisfying. I’m sure Juston’s going to. I’m sure the other guys that played here are going to, but in reality, (the) 2013 Mustangs needed to win that game, and that was a great, great win by our football team.”
Cal Poly won it by outscoring Portland State 31-13 in the second half. The Mustangs ran off 24 straight points starting with an 18-yard touchdown run by Chris Nicholls to open the third quarter.
Filling in for Ivory while he rubbed out cramps on the sideline, Kori Garcia caught a 14-yard scoring pass from Brown, and Cal Poly took its first lead and held it for good on a 32-yard field goal by Bobby Zalud.
Umoh, who caught three passes for 67 yards, made his long touchdown catch wide open over the middle of the field to make it 31-21 with 10:35 left in the game.
The Vikings, who’ve shown quick strike ability all season while averaging more than 600 yards of total offense through the first four games, immediately struck back.
Six-foot-6 Fresno State transfer Victor Dean had three touchdown catches, including two in the fourth quarter, and helped ensure the score would remain close to the end.
Dean caught four passes for 89 yards, Kasey Closs had four catches for 95 yards, and Big Sky rushing leader DJ Adams had 126 yards on 25 carries.
But it was a season-low 487 yards for Portland State.
Kieran McDonagh passed for 302 yards and ran for 48 more, but his fourth-down pass with 7 yards to go on the Cal Poly 16-yard line in the final five minutes proved costly.
Down 10, the Vikings could have gone for the field goal, but kicker Nick Fernandez had already missed one from 21 yards out and later failed to convert on an extra point.
The failed field goal was crucial. It came after Brown threw a woefully off-target interception backed up on his own 1-yard line.
Brown would quickly redeem himself, however, taking a quarterback keeper 45 yards to set up Zalud’s go-ahead field goal just minutes later.
The start had a similar story to the two previous losses. But, this time, by the end, everything was going Cal Poly’s way.
“Momentum is everything in football,” Ivory said. “It boosts your confidence, the sideline was more into the game, they were more active, and you could see that everybody was just believing in themselves.
“If we keep digging ourselves these holes, we’re not going to dig out the win like we did tonight, but we’ll learn from it.”