Photo by Roe Borunda/The Collegian
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Facing its first Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since upsetting Wyoming last year, the Cal Poly football team had hopes of doing the same to Fresno State Saturday.
But instead of pulling out an upset victory, the Mustangs suffered two losses — one on the scoreboard and another in the form of their starting quarterback Vince Moraga.
With less than 6:30 to go in the third quarter, Moraga took a hit from Fresno State’s Dalen Jones on a quarterback keeper. Moraga stayed down after the play and was eventually helped off the field nursing his right knee — a likely torn ACL. If the diagnosis is confirmed he will be out for the season.
On the field, backup Chris Brown took over at quarterback and led Cal Poly on a solid second half performance, but the Mustangs couldn’t overcome a 34-0 halftime deficit as they dropped a 41-25 decision to Fresno State inside Bulldog Stadium.
“We’re not happy that it’s 41-25, but I’m proud, I guess is the best word to say it, of how we played in the second half,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “We could have folded up and got beat 68-0. At least we came out and fought the fight.”
By halftime, Fresno State (2-0) turned the game into a rout outgaining the Mustangs 242 to 44 yards in total offense and held Cal Poly (1-1) to two first downs in comparison to 18 for the Bulldogs.
But the second half was a different story for Cal Poly.
After Fresno State scored its lone touchdown of that half with 10:52 left in the third quarter, a 5-yard pass from quarterback Derek Carr to wide receiver Davante Adams, Bulldogs head coach Tim DeRuyter inserted his second string players into the game. Brown then gave the Mustangs new life once Moraga went down, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for another in a quarter and a half’s worth of work. Fresno State was forced to put the first string back in as Cal Poly made a late-game run to render the final score line respectable in an otherwise dominant performance by the Bulldogs.
“They had a really good game plan,”junior slotback Kristaan Ivory said. “They were pinching in their defensive ends, letting their linebackers run free. It was just a real good game plan from Fresno. I give them all the credit.”
Cal Poly finished with 416 yards of offense — 372 coming in the second half — and held a team that scored 52 points against Rutgers the previous week to 370 yards. By the end of the night, the Mustangs also held the advantage in both rushing and passing yards gained.
But in the beginning, the difference for Fresno State was its standout return man Isaiah Burse. He broke out for a 61-yard punt return with 2:33 left in the opening quarter that gave the Bulldogs an early 10-0 lead.
Burse quickly added to that just two plays into the second quarter when Carr, brother of former NFL No. 1 draft pick David Carr, found the senior receiver on a slant in the endzone to open a 17-0 advantage.
The Bulldogs continued to assert their dominance as Burse added a second punt return for a touchdown with just 30 seconds left in the second quarter that extended Cal Poly’s deficit to 34 entering the locker room. They also pulled off a hook and ladder play before the break that saw offensive lineman Austin Wentworth score a touchdown.
“That offense is legit,” Walsh said of Fresno State’s attack. “I’m not in any way, shape or form disappointed with how our defense played…Overall, the punt returns are disheartening. Isaiah Burse is one of the best returners in the country too, so it’s not like you’re playing against some guy that’s not gonna play in the NFL.”
Cal Poly started the second half on a high note as Ivory dashed for a 52-yard run up the left side on the first play from scrimmage. That set up senior kicker Bobby Zalud’s 41-yard field goal to get the Mustangs on the board.
Cal Poly recovered a fumbled punt return at Fresno State’s 27-yard line that set the table for the Mustangs’ second score of the game — a 7-yard touchdown pass from Brown to junior wide receiver Willie Tucker — that cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 41-10 late in the third quarter.
Tucker later hauled in another big catch, this one a 50-yard reception in the fourth quarter to set up a 22-yard touchdown run on a keeper by Brown. Brown added another score, a 1-yard run, but in the end it wasn’t enough.
“(Fresno State) brought a little bit of pressure, so I just tried to stay true to my reads, which led to the outcome of Willie Tucker getting a catch and a couple other completion plays,” Brown said.
Brown, the Mustangs’ third-string quarterback, completed 9 of 15 passes for 184 yards to go along with his touchdown through the air and gained 58 yards on the ground. Primary backup and sophomore transfer Dano Graves didn’t make the trip due to injury.
“Chris came in and he made big plays,” Ivory said. “He gives you big plays. He gives you speed to run and probably has one of the biggest arms on the team…I don’t know what Vince’s status is, but if we have to go on with Chris I have confidence in him or any other of our quarterbacks.”
Ivory broke out in the second half finishing with 97 yards on 20 carries as Cal Poly’s top rusher. Tucker had 126 yards on five receptions and a touchdown.
Carr led the Bulldogs going 22 for 31 with 205 yards passing and three touchdowns while Burse finished with 173 all-purpose yards including his two punt return touchdowns. Those were the first returns for touchdowns allowed by a Cal Poly team in the Tim Walsh era.
The Mustangs will play another Mountain West Conference school next week when they visit Fort Collins, Colo. to take on Colorado State (1-1). Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. PDT.