CHENEY, Wash. — Standing outside a somber Cal Poly locker room Saturday afternoon, senior quarterback Chris Brown said he believes the Mustangs can go into their bye week and regroup.
Following a difficult loss against Eastern Washington and a lively crowd of more than 10,000 red-and white-clad fans at Roos Field, Cal Poly dropped to 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the Big Sky Conference.
A game that never should have gone to overtime did, and the Eagles showed why they’re the three-time defending conference champions. Even when Eastern Washington’s best player, Cooper Kupp, had a forgettable performance, the Eagles found a way to erase a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to win in overtime.
“There was a lot of plays in the game where if it was different,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “One penalty, one interception, one thing is different, it’s a different outcome, probably.”
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Unlike the losses against Northern Iowa and Montana State, where Cal Poly fell behind 21-0 and never fully recovered, Saturday’s game had a different feel. The Mustang defense played arguably as well as it has all season through the first three quarters, allowing Brown to navigate Cal Poly’s offense up and down the field.
The senior quarterback was superb in rushing for 173 yards and three touchdowns. Brown converted key third and fourth downs, and his fake pitch that led to a touchdown in the fourth quarter was as good a play as you’ll see from any quarterback.
Brown leads the Big Sky in rushing yards (702) and rushing touchdowns (nine). He’s currently on pace to carry the ball at least 230 times this season and already has more than 500 rushes during his 30-game career.
“This week is important to try to get some rest,” Brown said, “and get the bodies back together and try to fix what we’ve got to fix to start getting some wins.”
Having already played six teams in the preseason top-25 rankings, Cal Poly’s schedule becomes more manageable the rest of the way. It doesn’t get any easier, and Portland State, which has defeated two FBS opponents this season, will make sure of that when it visits Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Oct. 24.
The rest of the schedule includes games at Southern Utah (3-2), at home against Sacramento State (1-5), at UC Davis (1-5) and at home against North Dakota (4-2) during the regular season finale.
You won’t hear the Cal Poly coaching staff or any of the players talking about winning out or making the playoffs at this point. It’s a one-game season, as it should be when you’re in an early hole.
But it also wasn’t all that long ago when the Mustangs were talking about championship aspirations. That Week 1 victory at Montana seems like a distant memory now two weeks into October.
Before visiting Eastern Washington, it was tough to tell if the Mustangs had been nearly as sharp in any facet as they were during the season opener.
If Cal Poly can find a way to win out — the Mustangs went on a five-game winning streak in 2014 — a 7-4 record with close road losses at Arizona State and Eastern Washington reads like a playoff resume.
“We do have three of the last five at home, and that’s a good thing,” Walsh said. “We’ve played an incredibly difficult schedule and probably do need a break physically and mentally, especially after a loss like this one.”
Saturday’s setback likely stung more than the previous three for myriad reasons.
Letting a two-touchdown lead get away in the fourth quarter. Burton De Koning’s interception that was called back and could have sealed a Mustangs victory. The 22-yard punt late in the fourth quarter that gave Eastern Washington a short field. The missed pitch between Brown and Kori Garcia in overtime.
You can point to any or all of those as significant turning points in the game. There were probably more than that, too.
Walsh, who is widely respected in the Big Sky Conference, challenged his team to move past it and stay together moving forward.
“I’ve got to take responsibility for the lack of championship execution,” Walsh said, “when we had an opportunity to execute like champions.”