The Cal Poly football team (2-3, 2-1 Big Sky) brought a ray of light to home fans at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday as rain and clouds enshrouded the Central Coast.
With two running backs unavailable for the game, the Mustangs had to find a way to drive their triple option running attack over the Bengals of Idaho State (1-4, 0-1 Big Sky).
Finding a solution proved relatively easy.
With starting sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe ruled out of the game with a concussion and junior slot back Elias Stokes out for the season with a broken arm, junior slot back Kori Garcia and sophomore fullback Jared Mohamed stepped up for their most productive games of the season.
After Cal Poly’s opening 68-yard kickoff return was called back — the Mustangs had two players wearing number four on the field — the Mustangs’ offense settled into a groove.
Garcia capped off the Mustangs’ first drive of the game with a 5-yard touchdown rush around the left edge, diving just inside the pylon to give Cal Poly a 7-0 lead.
Just before time expired in the first quarter, senior quarterback Chris Brown added a 5-yard touchdown rush of his own. Brown’s run capped off a long 15-play, 80-yard, 6:30 drive for the Mustangs.
Trailing 14-0 to start the second quarter, Idaho State responded with a touchdown of its own. Xavier Finney finished the Bengals’ 8-play, 67-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run.
The Mustangs continued their success on the ground as the quarter drug on. Garcia responded to the Bengals’ touchdown with a 37-yard touchdown run of his own with 11:33 remaining in the first half. Four minutes later, Brown added a 41-yard touchdown run to give Cal Poly a 28-7 lead.
Idaho State quarterback Michael Sanders completed a pair of touchdown passes before the end of the half to leave the Bengals clawing at the heels of the Mustangs with the score 28-20.
At the half, Cal Poly’s stats were already impressive. Of the Mustangs’ 309 total yards, 289 were on the ground. Garcia had 117 yards rushing and Brown had 111. The halftime totals marked Garcia’s second 100-yard game in a row and Brown’s third of the season and 10th of his career.
Cal Poly kicked off to begin the second half, but it didn’t take long until the Mustangs were back on offense. Two plays into Idaho State’s first drive of the half, senior linebacker Tu’uta Inoke forced a fumble that was recovered by senior defensive lineman Logan Mayes.
“I was able to stick my hand in there and just punch out the ball and it just popped out right there and then,” Inoke said. “So I was happy I was able to get the forced fumble.”
Inoke’s fourth forced fumble of the year leads the FCS.
It didn’t take long for the Mustangs to take advantage of the turnover. Six plays later, Garcia powered into the end zone on a 6-yard rush that marked his third touchdown of the game.
With a 35-20 lead, Cal Poly’s ensuing kickoff was as uncommon as they come. A short pooch kick landed awkwardly on the turf and the ball bounced around long enough for the Mustangs’ special teams to race down the field and grab it. Three plays later, Brown tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Willie Tucker, giving the Mustangs a 42-20 lead.
Two drives later, Brown and Tucker connected again for a 59-yard touchdown reception, extending the Mustangs’ point total to 49.
After a long touchdown pass by the Bengals and another touchdown run by Brown, the third quarter ended with a 52-26 Cal Poly lead. The 24 points scored by the Mustangs in the third quarter was the most they’ve scored in a quarter since their 2012 matchup with Idaho State.
Senior kicker Stephen Pyle tacked on two field goals in the fourth quarter en route to a 58-26 Cal Poly victory.
Cal Poly finished the game with 605 yards on 90 plays. Rushing yards accounted for an astounding 499 yards on 81 of those plays. Garcia finished with 146 yards on 18 carries while Brown had 132 yards on 19 carries. Mohamed added 86 yards on 4 carries filling in for the injured Protheroe.
“Fortunately, we still have great backs right behind (Protheroe) that’s willing to step up and do their thing,” Brown said.
Brown added in 95 passing yards, 87 of which were caught by Tucker. Tucker also caught both of Brown’s touchdown passes.
“I feel more than 100 percent confident in everything between Chris (Brown), me, the offense,” Tucker said. “I feel like every play could go for 100.”
Tucker’s two touchdown catches mark a symbolic milestone in his recovery from two injuries that have kept him out of football for 18 months over the past two years.
“He had a long past two years, and mentally that can do a lot to a person,” Brown said. “It was good to see him trusting what he does.”
“I think our players came out with an attitude that there was some urgency to making sure that we gave ourselves the best opportunity to game,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “And the way we played on offense early in the game was fun to see.”
Defensively, the Mustangs also shined. Two forced fumbles and an interception combined for the defense’s three forced turnovers.
Cal Poly faces off against No. 9 Eastern Washington (2-2, 2-0 Big Sky) in Cheney, Washington next Saturday. Eastern Washington quarterback Jordan West leads the nation in passing yards and receiver Cooper Kupp leads the nation in receiving yards.
“Eastern Washington, to me, is the premier program in our conference right now,” Walsh said. “They are the team. And to go up there and have the opportunity to play them in (Cheney) and beat them in (Cheney) is a huge challenge, but it’s a great opportunity for us to really make a statement.”