PORTLAND, Ore. — Kristaan Ivory was in the locker room swigging pickle juice.
Chris Brown made a pass only a second-time starter’s mother could love.
Akaninyene Umoh and several other Cal Poly football players were allowing non-calls to rile them up.
It was crunch time in the Mustangs’ 38-34 victory over Portland State (3-2, 0-1 Big Sky Conference) on Thursday night, and the key players for Cal Poly (2-2, 1-0 Big Sky) for various reasons were veering off track, begging the question whether erasing a 14-point halftime deficit would mean much in the end.
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But Ivory returned from a bout with cramps to help snap a two-game losing streak heading into next week’s home game against Yale, Brown redeemed himself with deft running for big gains and Umoh composed himself in time to catch a crowd-silencing 54-yard touchdown.
Ivory ran for 184 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 32 yards. He began cramping midway through the third quarter and missed three drives during a span when Cal Poly tied the score at 21.
The junior slotback made people wonder when he took a pitch to the sideline and uncharacteristically danced out of bounds to avoid contact rather than fight for a close first down.
“I don’t think it was the workload,” the junior slotback said. “I didn’t hydrate as good as I should have this game, but I’m ready for the workload.
“My calves just both locked up on me. I went inside the locker room. My teammate had pickle juice, so I had to kill a bottle of pickle juice, the nastiest thing I’ve drank.”
Redshirt freshman Kori Garcia filled in more than capably while Ivory was out, catching the score-tying 14-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
But while Ivory was still sitting, and with the Mustangs pinned on their own 1-yard line on the next possession, Cal Poly coaches called for Brown to throw in a dangerous spot, and the sophomore quarterback came under pressure and lofted a pass to no one in particular.
Portland State free safety David Edgerson was the only player in the vicinity, grabbed it like he was the intended receiver and returned the ball to the 5-yard line.
It seemed like a risky first-down play for a newly minted starter in only his third collegiate game.
“That play shouldn’t be a risky play,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “It should be thrown away. It’s either a hit or a miss; it’s never a hit or an interception, and unfortunately, Chris threw it up and didn’t throw it far enough.”
Cal Poly had come all the way back, doing what’s seemed nearly impossible this season by skunking a Portland State offense averaging more than 600 yards a game for the entire third quarter.
The Vikings had just 42 yards in the third, and thanks to a defensive stand by the Mustangs after the interception, Portland State went nowhere. Kicker Nick Fernandez missed a 21-yard field goal with 31 seconds left in the quarter to make sure the Vikings stayed off the scoreboard for the entire frame.
Whether the coaching staff, a great portion of which either played for Walsh during his 14 seasons as the head coach of the Vikings or was born in Portland, regretted the call that resulted in the interception or not, it was a rare play that didn’t work out for Cal Poly in the second half.
Offensive coordinator Saga Tuitele, a former two-time All-Big Sky and honorable mention All-America guard under Walsh at Portland State, found his groove.
The Mustangs racked up 467 of their 518 total yards of offense in the second half, primarily using their option run game to wear down the Vikings defense severely.
“Saga narrowed down the list of plays and got the ball to the perimeter with Chris Brown having the ball in his hands,” Walsh said.
Brown made up for his earlier error by taking an option keeper 45 yards to set up the go-ahead 32-yard field goal by Bobby Zalud with 12:42 left in the game.
Brown would later add the clinching 1-yard touchdown run and finished with a career-high 129 rushing yards to go with 6-of-18 passing for 87 yards and two touchdowns.
Having already drawn comparisons to former Mustangs quarterback Andre Broadous, a Portland native who was on the sideline for the game, Brown made another leap forward with a clutch performance.
“He was just leading us,” Umoh said. “He’s our leader. ’Dre’s gone. We’ve got to let Chris know that he’s our leader, take us to the Promised Land.”
When Ivory returned early in the fourth quarter, he was also a key cog in the ball-moving machine.
And when he appeared to be yanked down by the collar of his jersey on an open-field rush to the sideline and/or pulled down by the facemask as well, Umoh took exception and began an animated protest on the field.
It coincided with a few plays where junior receiver Willie Tucker, who was held without a catch for the first time this season, was also visibly campaigning for pass interference penalties against Portland State.
On the would-be horsecollar/facemask play, offensive linemen stepped in to calm Umoh down before he earned an unsportmanlike penalty of his own, and it served to be a turning point in the game.
On the next Cal Poly possession — with another perfect play-call — Umoh was completely unguarded on a play-action pass up the middle when his defender bit on the run fake.
The fullback streaked up the field untouched for a 54-yard touchdown catch that gave the Mustangs a 10-point lead, a crucial two-score cushion they were able to leverage for the victory.
“We feel like we should have got a call right there,” Umoh said of the questionable tackle of Ivory, “and then we just told ourselves the refs aren’t going to win this game for us right now. We have to win the game.”