Of all the impressive statistics Cal Poly’s football team recorded in 2015, only one number mattered when the season came to a close Saturday night.
The Mustangs completed a four-win season for the second time in head coach Tim Walsh’s tenure after being handed their most lopsided loss of the year against visiting North Dakota. Playing for their playoff lives, the Fighting Hawks led by four touchdowns at halftime and never let Cal Poly make it a game.
When the final whistle blew, it was North Dakota 45, Cal Poly 21. Eighteen Mustang seniors played their final games in front of a half-full crowd at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, adding to Cal Poly’s trend of poor play on senior night. The program is 1-6 during its final home games over the past seven seasons.
“The fact is, 28-0 for us is not the way we can play,” Walsh said. “We can’t play like that.”
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Not much went right for the Mustangs, who finished the season with a 4-7 overall record and a 3-5 mark against Big Sky Conference opponents. The four wins — the only number that mattered — matched the fewest total in Walsh’s seven-year tenure. They also lost two of three fumbles, part of an unsettling trend that crippled Cal Poly during the second half of the season.
One year removed from leading the Big Sky and ranking among the best team in the country in terms of ball possession, the Mustangs fumbled 26 times and lost 15 of them this fall. Much the same way that turnovers cost Cal Poly in earlier losses to ranked opponents Eastern Washington and playoff-bound Portland State, the Fighting Hawks used those momentum swings to their advantage and built a lead no triple-option team could overcome.
“That part of the game this year was extremely disappointing,” Walsh said. “The yards, the first downs, even the points we scored this year, it was a great run.
“But if we go back on it, the fumbles were critical and they really, really hurt us.”
For the second consecutive year, Cal Poly broke the school and Big Sky records for rushing yards in a season. The Mustangs rushed for 4,260 yards in 11 games, an average of 387.3 per contest — tops in the FCS for the third straight season — and scored 38 times on the ground.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Brown was the driving force behind Cal Poly’s nearly unstoppable rushing attack. In running for 1,084 yards and 13 touchdowns, Brown became the fifth Mustang in program history to rush for 3,000 yards in his career.
He joined an exclusive club with Craig Young (4,205 yards), Antonio Warren (3,834), James Noble (3,678) and Louis Jackson (3,330) as the only Cal Poly players to do so. The Compton native also threw for a season-high 211 yards against North Dakota, putting him over 3,000 yards passing in his career.
One of three active players in the FCS to have 3,000 yards rushing and passing, Brown moved passed Andre Broadous for No. 8 on the school’s all-time list with 3,147 yards.
“That guy is such a competitor and he’s such a tough guy,” Walsh said. “This isn’t the way he wanted to go out at all.”
A few years from now, perhaps Brown will be able to look back and appreciate his remarkable collegiate career. He’s the school record-holder with 38 rushing touchdowns and is tied with Jonathan Dally for the No. 1 spot in career touchdowns responsible for with 75 in 34 games.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound quarterback leaves the program ranked No. 4 on Cal Poly’s all-time list in career 100-yard games (13), touchdown passes (35) and is fifth in career rushing yards (3,034).
“The things that he’s accomplished here have been pretty incredible,” Walsh said.
Still, there’s no doubt Brown would trade it all for a shot at the playoffs and a run at an FCS championship. Those were the preseason aspirations — as they are for every team the first week of August — that never came to fruition.
The Mustangs reminded anyone who paid close attention this season that winning a college football game is a significant challenge at every level. Cal Poly’s three Big Sky victories came against the bottom three teams in the final conference standings, with UC Davis, Idaho State and Sacramento State combining for four league wins during the season.
It will be interesting to see where the program goes from here. Replacing Brown is going to be a key storyline during spring practice and next fall camp, and adjustments have to be made to a defensive unit that allowed more than 35 points per game in 2015.
It’s a challenge Walsh said he’s looking forward to.
“I think overall with what we accomplished on offense, I think the offensive coaches, the offensive players, from a numbers stand point, should feel good about it,” Walsh said. “But from a record stand point, we play the game to win.
“And when you only win four times, those kind of get thrown out the window.”