Before the Cal Poly football team scored 42 points in Saturday’s win over Portland State, before the Mustangs rolled up 531 yards of offense, there were a couple of weeks of tough love.
Cal Poly spent its bye week leading into the game concerned with correcting all the mistakes that led to lopsided losses in the first two weeks of the season.
Part of the message: The Mustangs just weren’t playing like a good team.
Last Wednesday, offensive coordinator Saga Tuitele laid into his unit in a post-practice reaming. Heading into Saturday’s Big Sky Conference-opener at Northern Arizona (2-2), it’s clear the tactic worked.
“We were just disappointed in our urgency at practice,” Tuitele said after Saturday’s 42-14 victory over the Vikings. “It’s not OK to be 0-2, and it’s not OK to be 1-2. We’ve got to grind it out. We’re young and all that stuff, and we’re injured, but it’s the urgency that we didn’t have those first two weeks, and I want to get our point across. Our expectations are higher.”
In bashing Portland State (1-3) in a nonconference game, Cal Poly (1-2) racked up 25 first downs. The Mustangs ran for 470 yards at 6.4 yards a pop. The six touchdowns were two more than the first two games combined.
In addition to junior quarterback Chris Brown’s 220 yards of total offense and three total touchdowns, sophomore slotback Kori Garcia and senior fullback Brandon Howe had career highs in rushing.
Tuitele’s message struck a chord with his offense.
“Coach T, he just does a good job of really getting to us and getting to the players,” Brown said. “We took that, and we rolled with it for the rest of the week, and we had a good outcome. Everybody responded to it well, nobody responded to it negatively.”
The key to the turnaround, Brown said Tuesday, was that an offense with plenty of inexperienced players had to discover its identity.
The arrests of five suspended players now charged in connection with an alleged attempted armed robbery, including star slotback Kristaan Ivory, also rocked the team in training camp, bringing even more young players to the forefront.
And the play-caller himself had to gain a measure of trust with his personnel, which has now grown to include freshmen running backs Lance Mudd and Joe Protheroe.
In all, seven of the 11 offensive starters are new, and of those, junior center Stephen Sippel was the only one to start every game last season.
“For me, it was about trusting the young kids we have out there,” Tuitele. “I told the kids I was a little hesitant because we have so many young guys out there. I wasn’t sure what they could do.
“I’ve got to trust them to do their job, and young or not, I can’t handcuff myself in thinking they are young.”
Not only was the offense moving the ball and finishing drives, the defense cleaned up its play as well.
After the Cal Poly defense allowed 100-yard rushers in each of the first two games, Portland State didn’t have a rusher gain more than 45 yards. After three quarters, Cal Poly led 35-0, and the Vikings had only 91 rushing yards and 89 passing yards.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh was confronted with the question of how good this 1-2 team can be by the end of the season.
“I think some of the points of emphasis hit home,” Walsh said. “Now are they going to continue to? That’s the magic question. If we can continue to play with the intensity that we played with and the desire to play the game, the emotional side of things we played with on Saturday night, and carry those forward, we can be a good team.
“One game doesn’t make you a good team. That was one good game, but to be a good team, you have to win week in and week out, and I think that’s the point of emphasis this week.”