Every time Chris Brown dropped back to pass, the Cal Poly football team got a little bit closer to the dream victory that would drastically alter a Mustangs season that started like a nightmare.
Not that the junior quarterback was really dropping back to pass. Or was he?
“That’s for us to know,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, “and for you guys to figure out.”
In a 41-21 Mustangs victory on Saturday, No. 7 Montana (5-3, 3-1 Big Sky Conference) never seemed to get it straight. Brown continually turned pass drops into yard-chomping scrambles, faking as if he might throw and then turning upfield for big gains.
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Brown rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, breaking his own program record for rushing yards by a quarterback set in a 195-yard effort at UC Davis last season.
And he did so behind a beleaguered offensive line that’s already lost three starters to injury this season.
“Our guys did a great job of selling,” the scrambles, Brown said, indicating that they just might have been by design. “I just tried to take advantage of the opportunity. If they were going to open it up, I was going to get a chance to just take it. We needed as much yards as we could get. Every first down counted.”
Just as it pounded Sacramento State in a 56-27 victory last weekend, Cal Poly
(5-3, 4-1 Big Sky) totally shut down Montana in the second half, turning a 14-14 halftime tie into a blowout by outscoring the Grizzlies 27-7 the rest of the way.
The victory may suddenly vault the Mustangs from “also receiving votes” in the polls to national relevancy, and if it doesn’t, the win had to open plenty of eyes going into next week’s home showdown with No. 10 Montana State.
“I think it really should,” said senior linebacker Cameron Ontko, who had a team-high 10 tackles. “Honestly, this was a huge win for us with them being ranked seventh in the nation. I think this shows we can play with anybody. If anyone doubts us, we’re going to play tougher than them.”
Cal Poly’s 41 points were the most allowed by Montana all season. The Grizzlies only gave up 22 in a nonconference loss to No. 1 North Dakota State, the three-time defending national champion.
The Mustangs have now won four straight and five of six after looking lost in the first two games of the season.
The year started ominously when five players, including returning offensive MVP Kristaan Ivory, were arrested and charged in connection with an alleged attempted armed robbery in August.
In the first two games of the season, Cal Poly averaged only 14 points in lopsided losses.
Since then, the Mustangs are scoring 41 points per game and have turned a potential lost season into one where playoff expectations are suddenly reasonable.
Another victory over the Bobcats next week, and Cal Poly could be the toast of the FCS.
“If we win next week,” Walsh said, “we’ll be in pretty good position. They need to enjoy it tonight. They’ve worked hard. I’m so proud of the leadership our seniors have shown. And what they’ve done to get us back to a point where we’re playing extremely meaningful games the rest of the way in.”
Brown’s touchdown runs came from 17 yards late in the third quarter and 15 yards early in the fourth to give Cal Poly a 20-point lead, but he wasn’t the only Mustangs rusher to get in the end zone.
Senior fullback Brandon Howe ran 19 times for 98 yards and a 5-yard touchdown run to tie the score with 48 seconds left before the half. Sophomore slotback Kori Garcia ran 13 times for 53 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown run to break a scoreless tie on Cal Poly’s first possession of the game.
When Brown was pulled from the game suffering leg cramps late in the fourth quarter, backup junior quarterback Dano Graves stepped right in to lead another touchdown drive and capped it with his own 1-yard scoring run.
Brown credited the blocking of the offensive line and the gameplan by offensive coordinator Saga Tuitele against what Walsh called the best defense in the conference for all the success.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without the line,” Brown said. “They played like hogs today. I was very excited about the guys.
“I was astounded by them, and coach T did a great job with them. Montana’s D-line, they were coming at us all game. They were a great physical defense all around.”
The Cal Poly defense made a statement as well, even though Nick Dzubnar, the nation’s leading tackler, had his string of seven straight double-digit tackle games come to an end.
After passing for 178 yards in the first half and racking up 246 yards of total offense in the first two quarters, the Grizzlies mustered only 130 yards the rest of the way. And before a fourth-quarter touchdown drive made it 34-21 with 6:34 left, Montana had racked up only 33 yards of total offense in the second half.
“It’s just our mentality,” Ontko said. “We’re just relentless on defense, especially in the second half. We know how good we can be.
“It has to do with second-half adjustments. Once we see a play and they get a couple yards, we can take a step back and kind of think it through and just play it differently, so it doesn’t happen in the future again.”