CHENEY, Wash. — For the better part of 50 minutes Saturday afternoon at Roos Field, the Cal Poly football team dominated the line of scrimmage and was well on its way to another upset victory on the road against a top-10 team in the country.
But in a late flash of missed chances and extra opportunities, the No. 7-ranked Eagles rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to hand the visiting Mustangs a 42-41 defeat in overtime before a sellout crowd of 10,325.
Three-time defending Big Sky Conference champion Eastern Washington outscored Cal Poly 22-7 in the fourth quarter to force the extra period. Junior quarterback Jordan West completed his fourth touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to Kendrick Bourne to go ahead 42-35.
The Mustangs (2-4, 1-2 Big Sky) would answer when Chris Brown pushed his way into the end zone for the third time and head coach Tim Walsh wasted no time in calling for the two-point conversion.
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Brown stepped to his right, drew a handful of Eagle defenders and pitched the ball in the flat toward Kori Garcia.
The pitch was mishandled and tumbled to the turf, and just like that Cal Poly’s upset bid was over.
“We talk to the team about what it takes to play at a championship level against a team that’s won this conference three consecutive times,” Walsh said. “We’re close, but we’re just not there and that’s on me.”
Up until the fourth quarter, the Mustangs delivered one of their best defensive efforts of the season. Eastern Washington (3-2, 2-0), one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the conference, was forced to punt five times in the first three quarters.
All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp, considered among the best players in the country and the Big Sky’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions, was held to his worst statistical performance of the season. The junior caught four passes for 21 yards thanks to a gritty effort from the Mustangs’ secondary.
“Give credit to Cal Poly,” Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. “They came in here and played incredible football and were in control at many times. But our guys fought and found a way.”
Brown again was the catalyst in Cal Poly’s dominant rushing attack.
The Mustangs ran the ball 89 times for a season-best 503 yards, an average of nearly 6 yards per attempt. Brown surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark for the fourth time in six games this year and finished with 173 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries. Sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe ran the ball 30 times for 121 hard-earned yards and two touchdowns. Garcia finished with 88 yards on 15 attempts.
“The guys fought hard the whole game,” Brown said. “To come up with a loss is discouraging but at the same time it’s encouraging to know that we’ve got a good team.”
Trailing 35-27 with 5:10 left in the fourth quarter, West led the Eagles on a 7-play, 55-yard scoring drive that ended with a Nic Sblendorio 16-yard touchdown catch. Having missed an extra point earlier in the game, Eastern Washington had to go for the two-point conversion.
West’s ensuing pass was intercepted by Cal Poly linebacker Burton De Koning and it appeared the Mustangs had all but sealed up an improbable victory.
A defensive holding call negated the play, giving the Eagles another shot at the end zone. West made the most of it and connected with Terry Jackson on a short pass to tie the score.
“In reality we had several opportunities to win the game with just a couple first downs,” Walsh said. “We dominated the line of scrimmage for so long and when we needed to we couldn’t and when we needed to get a stop we couldn’t.”
While they will likely lament this loss for several days heading into the bye week, Cal Poly was able to avoid the slow starts that led to losses against Northern Iowa and Montana State last month.
After the Eagles scored on the first possession of the game, Brown led the Mustangs on consecutive scoring drives to move ahead 14-6 early in the second quarter.
Cal Poly extended its lead with a well timed reverse to wide receiver Roland Jackson Jr. After successfully running to the perimeter with slotbacks Garcia and Kyle Lewis, Brown caught the Eagles off guard with a pitch back to a sprinting Jackson.
The senior wide receiver went 55 yards untouched down the Mustangs’ sideline and the visitors went ahead 21-6. Jackson’s run gave Cal Poly 290 first-half rushing yards.
“We found a way to win,” Baldwin said, “and found a way to beat a very well coached and good Cal Poly team.”