DAVIS — Tim Walsh thought the worst, and at this point, who’d call it pessimism?
The Cal Poly football head coach saw quarterback Chris Brown writhing on the turf at Aggie Stadium on Saturday after making a breathtaking 72-yard run to the 1-yard line believing he’d lost yet another quarterback.
After starting the season with five quarterbacks, four of which battled for the starting job, Walsh moved forward with the thought that three of those potential starters were gone and Cal Poly would have to finish off the Battle for the Golden Horsehoe against rival UC Davis led by redshirt freshman Tanner Trosin.
“When I got out there and I saw he was just a little tired, I said you’ve got to be kidding me,” Walsh quipped.
Yes, Brown missed a play, but he quickly caught his breath and came back to lead the Mustangs (4-5, 3-2 Big Sky Conference) to a 34-16 victory over the Aggies (3-7, 3-3 Big Sky).
In his first action since a miserable 24-10 home loss to Yale on Oct. 5 where he accounted for three turnovers, Brown put up the highest rushing total by a Cal Poly quarterback in program history, tallying 195 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries and did not turn the ball over.
The rushing total is also the 10th highest single-game total by a player at any position in Division I program history.
The 72-yard run came midway through the third quarter on a third-and-11 play where Brown seemingly dropped back to pass and took a designed run to the right and sprinted through the heart of the UC Davis defense.
He split two defenders and appeared well on his way to a touchdown but slowed up at the end and was dragged down at the 1-yard line, where it appeared he may have hurt his shoulder going down.
Brown was pulled after the Yale loss partly for ineffectiveness but also because he suffered a partially torn hip flexor in that game.
Brown was unavailable for the two weeks following that and was still not 100 percent coming into the game. Could he have reaggravated that injury?
Nope. He simply ran out of gas.
“It was a great job by the O-line; they sold it perfectly,” said Brown, who ran three designed quarterback-draw plays over the course of the game and also had a 29-yard touchdown run and two 5-yard scores. “I just tried to get what I could out of it. I lost the air out of me, and that’s what made me come out on the next play.
“I couldn’t have done it without the other 10 guys on the field. The line did a great job this game. They gave me time when I needed it, and that’s the only way it was possible.”
Brown didn’t need the time to throw. He attempted just five passes. The one completion, however, was a doozy.
Backing an interception by senior safety Alex Hubbard that gave the Mustangs the ball at the UC Davis 42-yard line with a 20-16 lead and 9:20 left in the game, Brown hit senior fullback Akaninyene Umoh for a 15-yard gain on third-and-12 that kept the drive alive and led to a 5-yard touchdown run by Brown to effectively seal the victory, the second straight for Cal Poly in the annual rivalry game.
“Instead of them being backed up or punting the ball away,” first-year UC Davis coach Ron Gould said, “that was a critical moment where we had a chance to get a stop and didn’t get a stop.”
Aside from that catch, the rest of Cal Poly’s 429 yards of total offense came on the ground.
The 414 rushing yards were a season high for the Mustangs, who already led the FCS with 281 rushing yards per game. The 15 passing yards were a season low.
Though Cal Poly had only been passing for 156.2 yards per game, the play-calling signified a precipitous drop in passing plays.
Walsh warned before the game that the Mustangs needed to get back to their run-oriented foundation, and apparently that philosophy had something to do with what Brown had shown in the three starts he made after opening-game starter Vince Moraga went down with a season-ending knee injury against Fresno State in the second game of the season.
After Brown was sidelined, Cal Poly turned to sophomore Air Force transfer Dano Graves for the next three starts, but after Graves suffered a leg injury in last week‘s 17-13 loss to Northern Arizona, Walsh handed the ball back to Brown and kept it on the ground.
“The thing we want to do is play to our strength,” Walsh said. “We probably could have tried to” pass more.
“We’re not a good second-and-10 team and third-and-10 team. That’s not who we are. We wanted to do what we thought our players could do best, and we wanted to put the ball in his hands because we think he’s a dynamic runner, and I think he proved that he is.”