The Cal Poly football team needed a reason to believe going into last season’s game at Portland State.
The Mustangs were 1-2 and had already lost starting quarterback Vince Moraga to a season-ending knee injury. Plus, the Vikings were one of the hottest offensive teams in the FCS.
Then quarterback Chris Brown, in just his second career start, led a stirring comeback that not only helped Cal Poly head coach and Portland State Hall of Fame inductee Tim Walsh make a triumphant return to town but also vaulted the Mustangs back into the conversation of Big Sky Conference contenders.
Brown passed for 87 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 184 more yards and another score.
Portland State took a 21-7 lead into the half, but Brown led the Mustangs to 31 second-half points, and Cal Poly snatched a 38-34 victory, his first as a starter.
“I felt like it wasn’t just me,” Brown said this week. “I felt like our offense as whole in the second half came together, and we focused on what they were showing us and learn how to counteract them.”
Facing the Vikings (1-2) once again today at 6 p.m., this time at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Brown could need a similar output to help turn around a disappointing 0-2 start. He’s also going to need the whole offense to get into the act again.
“With his ability to be a threat running the ball,” Walsh said, “he’s a huge asset because he’s a touchdown waiting to happen with the ball in his hands. And he’s becoming better as a thrower. So, now that really gives him the ability to be that double-phase guy that can hurt you with his feet, but he also could hurt you with his arm. Eventually, that’s all going to get there, and it’s going to add up to points.
“Eighteen points isn’t going to cut it for us.”
Beating out fellow junior Dano Graves for the starting job going into the season, Brown had a career passing day in Cal Poly’s most recent game, a 44-18 loss at No. 10 South Dakota State.
Brown was 16-of-21 passing for 202 yards, including an 89-yard pass to junior receiver Roland Jackson that was stopped just short of a touchdown. Brown also ran 20 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns.
But aside from 86 yards and a touchdown by sophomore slotback Kori Garcia, Cal Poly was unable to keep pace on the scoreboard with the Jackrabbits.
The Mustangs had trouble sustaining drives and turned the ball over on downs twice in South Dakota State territory.
“We have to be sharp in our assignments and know what we have to do,” Brown said, “from the offensive line getting the right blocks to the slots making sure they know who to get to and running the right routes and for us quarterbacks making the right decisions when we have the ball in our hands if I’m running it or passing it.
“Our fundamentals, our techniques have to be sharp for us to win these games.”
During last week’s bye, Cal Poly made it a priority to emphasize finishing drives in practice. It’s been a continuing mantra as preparations for the Vikings were made in earnest this past week.
Whatever the issues may be, the Mustangs need to figure out a solution to the scoring problem.
“We’re going to have to find ways to get the ball into the end zone on offense,” Walsh said, “and we’re going to have to at least try to slow them down on offense and give ourselves a chance to win the game like we did last year in the fourth quarter.”
Last year’s comeback was nearly in jeopardy before the start of that fourth quarter. With the score tied at 21 late in the third, Portland State downed a punt at the Cal Poly 1-yard line.
Backed up to his own end zone, Brown was pressured and floated an ill-advised pass that was intercepted and returned to the 5-yard line, giving the Vikings perfect position to retake the momentum.
In the end, the Mustangs defense held, forcing a 21-yard field-goal attempt that went wide.
Brown returned to the game unshaken and needs that same confidence to shine through today.
“I knew the mistake before I even let the ball go,” Brown said of the interception. “We had talked about it in the meeting room beforehand. I just made my first mistake.
“I wiped it off the next play, and the team felt like they needed me to play better on the next series. So, that’s all I was focusing on, just wipe it off and get ready to score some touchdowns.”