If the Cal Poly football team’s entire season could be summed up in one game, Saturday’s 35-22 loss to No. 3 Eastern Washington did as good a job as any.
The Mustangs kept hope alive as long as possible, but previous missteps proved too much to overcome.
“We try to play catch-up,” senior slotback Cole Stanford said, “and I don’t really think that’s a good style of football to play.
“It’s a bummer to see the scoreboard the way it is right now after some of the guys played the way that they did, so hard.”
Cal Poly fought back from a 35-3 third-quarter deficit with quarterback Chris Brown coming off the bench to lead three fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
But just as in early-season losses to Fresno State and Colorado State, the Brown-led comeback fell short.
The Mustangs (5-6, 4-3 Big Sky Conference) tried to turn their season around in earnest after an unexpected home loss to Yale in early October, and spurred by a stout and stingy defense, Cal Poly remained mathematically alive for a share of the conference title and FCS playoff consideration coming into Saturday’s game.
But an offensive unit that has been crippled by injury all season could not capitalize on another solid defensive start, and now those preseason goals of titles and playoffs are dead.
The Eagles (9-2, 7-0 Big Sky) ran just 12 offensive plays in the first quarter and punted on their first two drives of the game after scoring touchdowns on their first eight possessions last week against Montana State.
Cal Poly, however, had to settle for a field goal on the opening possession after driving to the Eastern Washington 5-yard line, and the Mustangs offense was crippled by three first-quarter penalties totaling 35 yards. At the half, when the Eagles led 14-3, Cal Poly had been flagged four times for 50 yards while Eastern Washington had one holding call for 10 yards.
“Against that team, we can’t play as inefficiently as we played on offense,” Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. “They’re good. They did some thing better than we thought they could do. We couldn’t get ourselves into good throwing downs.
“We couldn’t capitalize. We’re not going to be good in first-and-24. That’s not how we’re built to be on offense, and we had maybe four or five of them in the first half. In a game like this, you just can’t do that.”
Walsh said he thought about bringing Brown into the game sooner. The sophomore led Cal Poly to high-scoring victories in the past two games but missed most of the week of practice with an ankle injury.
Sophomore Air Force transfer Dano Graves made the start and threw three interceptions, finishing 8 of 16 for 37 yards. Graves also ran a team-high 16 times for 75 yards.
With the game all but out of reach, Brown was 4-of-7 passing for 87 yards and a 25-yard touchdown pass to Stanford, and ran five times for 63 yards and another score.
“Early on, those penalties weren’t Dano’s fault,” Walsh said. “Whether it was Chris or Dano, those penalties were going to hurt us.
“The decision had to do with, Dano practiced all week, and Chris really only practiced on Thursday. We’re hopefully better when we prepare to play the game with the quarterback that practices all week.”
Eventually, the Eastern Washington offense found a groove. FCS pass efficiency leader Vernon Adams was 14-of-21 passing for 224 yards, two touchdowns to freshman receiver Cooper Kupp and an interception before leaving the game for good after connecting with Kupp on a 24-yarder that made it 21-3 early in the third quarter.
Adams was crushed as he threw the ball and was held out as a precaution after suffering a shoulder stinger, but backup quarterback Anthony Vitto picked up right where Adams left off, hitting Shaquille Hill on a 54-yard bomb for a touchdown on the next drive.
Mario Brown had a 34-yard touchdown run for the Eagles to go with Quincy Forte’s 37-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
It appeared the Cal Poly defense was losing its steam after giving up three third-quarter touchdowns, but the Mustangs rebounded to force Eastern Washington into three-and-outs on three of the Eagles’ four fourth-quarter possessions as Brown and the offense roared back.
Cal Poly has next week’s season finale at lowly Northern Colorado (1-10, 0-7 Big Sky) left on the schedule with little to play for aside from avoiding a losing season.
But as the case has been so far this season, the Mustangs are prepared to fight to the end.
“You can’t get down,” said Cal Poly senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz, who sacked Adams to up his season total to a team-high 71⁄2 sacks. “Some players started to get down, but you’ve got to pick them up. I don’t think it needed to be said. I think it needed to be shown.
“For us, we made a few mistakes; they capitalized on it. A couple bad calls, a couple mistakes, but the players out there, the best thing for us is to go out fighting.”