Six days from now, the Cal Poly football team will take the field at Alex G. Spanos Stadium for the final time this season.
Having spent nearly every day together for the better part of four straight months, Saturday’s regular season finale against North Dakota will provide some closure to an up-and-down season for the Mustangs.
Many of Cal Poly’s 18 graduating seniors will never play another down of football. When they look back on a trying 2015 season, perhaps the Mustangs will remember Saturday’s 55-38 victory over rival UC Davis as one of the most thrilling moments.
It was the day senior quarterback Chris Brown scored touchdowns passing, rushing and receiving for the second time in his career.
The game Willie Tucker caught a career-best three touchdown passes in a stadium not far from where he set prep receiving records as a Oak Ridge High standout.
Or the day Folsom native Burton De Koning carried the Golden Horseshoe trophy off the field and into a jubilant Cal Poly locker room.
“I told the guys in there that we’re a great team,” Brown said. “We’re a championship team, and I believe it.
“This one means a lot to this program and to Cal Poly.”
Brown filed another chapter in his sensational season, passing for 153 yards and three touchdowns, rushing for 160 yards with another score and pulling in a 30-yard touchdown on a halfback pass from Kori Garcia.
Despite playing with a heavily wrapped leg, the quarterback averaged 9.1 yards per rush on a game-high 17 carries. He surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second year in a row, needing fewer carries to do so throughout a more efficient senior season.
In 33 career games, Brown has been responsible for 72 touchdowns — 36 rushing, 34 passing and two receiving. For good measure, if Brown passes for 64 yards and rushes for 34 more against North Dakota, he’ll finish his career with 3,000 yards rushing and passing.
“I don’t want this collegiate career to come to an end,” Brown said. “But at the same time, I plan on going out and trying to do the best that I can to leave a legacy of my name here and for our program for next year.”
With Brown directing the offense against a sliding Aggies defense, Cal Poly recorded 674 yards of offense, 491 of those coming on 66 rushing attempts. The Mustangs never punted and converted on seven of their 10 third downs, showing the type of consistency that hindered the team in early losses against Northern Iowa and Montana State.
Taking a look through Cal Poly’s 2015 reveals a slate of games as daunting as any in head coach Tim Walsh’s seven years in San Luis Obispo. The Mustangs have played only two opponents who have not been ranked in the FCS STATS top 25 poll at some point this season: Sacramento State and UC Davis.
Cal Poly handled its in-state rivals by a combined score of 91-52 in consecutive weeks and will have the opportunity to end the season on a three-game winning streak.
A hungry North Dakota team will bring a 6-4 overall record into next Saturday’s game, needing a seventh victory to be considered for a spot in the 24-team FCS playoffs. It will be an outside shot given the parity in the Big Sky Conference this season, but UND certainly won’t take the Mustangs lightly.
“They’re going to do a lot of the same stuff (UC Davis) just did in the run game,” Walsh said. “We’re going to have to get better defensively in the run game.”
The Aggies surpassed their season average for rushing (112.9 yards per game) by more than 80 yards during a physical Battle for the Golden Horseshoe and finished with 195 yards on 30 attempts.
North Dakota features a more dynamic rushing offense with true freshman John Santiago among the best running backs in the conference this season. He leads the Big Sky with 1,342 yards, an average of more than 134 per game, and has scored 13 touchdowns on the ground.
On paper, it’s a fitting final challenge for these Mustangs. A gritty group that at times hasn’t been able to get out of its own way this year will get a chance to spoil someone else’s postseason aspirations.
“I don’t want it to end at all,” Tucker said. “… Couple other swings in the season and we would keep going after this. But it is what it is. It’s the last one and we’re trying to finish strong. Just got to keep going.”