After two straight losses to FBS teams and a bye this past week, the Cal Poly football team heads north to begin the Big Sky portion of its schedule and to take on one of the nation’s most potent offenses in Portland State. Last year, Cal Poly took down the Vikings 37-25 at home.
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Head coach Tim Walsh must have one heck of a halftime speech.
Through three games this season, the Cal Poly football team (1-2) has played well, but only half the time.
In their loss to Fresno State, the Mustangs were shutout 34-0 through the first two quarters, then rallied back for a 25-7 second half.
The following week, Cal Poly gave up only seven points to Colorado State in the second half, after allowing 27 points in the first.
“For whatever reason we’ve got to learn how to play first halves and come out both sides of the ball,” Walsh said. “We have not played well the first half as a team. We’ve got to play better. It’s more about us than I think it is about our opponent.”
Cal Poly faces Portland State on the road Thursday night in its first Big Sky Conference game. The Vikings were kept at bay through all four quarters of Cal Poly’s 37-25 victory at Alex G. Spanos Stadium in 2012.
“It’s just learning to play consistent and good for 60 minutes and just playing a full game to the potential that we’re capable of,” linebacker and team captain Johnny Millard said. “That’s what we’re trying to focus on and hopefully attain by Portland State.”
That consistency will be critical for Cal Poly, particularly on defense. Portland State possesses one of the toughest offenses in the Big Sky, leading the conference with 612 yards, 328 rushing yards and 24.2 first downs per game.
“When you go against a good offense, you have to be fundamentally sound because if you’re not, that’s how they expose you,” Millard said. “I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve got to do — be consistent, make them work for touchdowns.”
The Vikings are also notorious for busting out big plays. Last September they launched a flea flicker on their first possession at Spanos Stadium.
“We can’t allow that,” Walsh said. “If that’s happening, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble. For us to slow them down, we’ve got to play four quarters of good football. We have to make sure that we’re sound in what we’re doing, that we tackle better than we’ve been tackling.”
On offense, Walsh will look to quarterback Chris Brown, who was thrust into the starting role after beginning the season third on the depth chart. On Sept. 7, the sophomore took over for Vince Moraga, who left the Fresno State game with a torn ACL and cartilage in his knee.
“He’s our guy right now, but he needs to continue to play better,” Walsh said. “He’s still a work in progress. (The starting job) is his right now and he’s playing well enough to hold onto it. But at some point in time, he’s got to take the next step and become a more consistent player at that position.”
In his first start, Brown threw for 167 yards and one touchdown while notching 11 completions over 20 attempts. With more playing time under his belt, Brown says the game should slow down a little bit in his eyes.
“The other starters that have been playing for a while, they’re doing a good job at making sure that I’m calm,” Brown said. “I try to do what I can to make sure that our position group is ready to go, our line’s ready to go, our whole offense is ready to go.”
As if Cal Poly’s first Big Sky matchup of 2013 wasn’t meaningful enough, there’s Walsh’s history with Portland State. He knows the Vikings’ style of play well because he spent 14 seasons as their head coach.
“That makes it something a little special,” Walsh said. “But in reality, once the game starts, I’m not going to be thinking about anything else but what we can do to help the 2013 get off to a 1-0 start in the Big Sky at Cal Poly.”
For the first time, Walsh will man the visitor’s side of Jeld-Wen field Thursday. He led the Vikings to four postseason berths during his tenure, landing him a spot in the Portland State Hall of Fame.
“We’re all aware that that was where he was,” Brown said. “But we’re not even thinking about that, to be honest. We’re just thinking about coming up and being ready to play when that day comes.”
Kickoff is set for 7:15 p.m., and emotional ties aside, Walsh is focused not on his past with Portland, but on the first of Cal Poly’s eight conference games in 2013.
“We need to win,” Walsh said. “We must win.”