Matt Brennan called it redemption.
The sophomore quarterback had every right to after helping the Cal Poly football team to a 23-17 Great West Football Conference win Saturday night over visiting rival UC Davis in front of 8,435 fans at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Brennan, whose 1-yard touchdown run gave Cal Poly a 20-10 lead as time expired in the third quarter, was referring to a 20-13 loss at UC Davis last year in which he was 9 of 20 and absorbed six sacks in his first career start.
“This game means so much to the seniors,” Brennan said. “I really felt terrible, almost like I let the team down last year. The game wasn’t any one person’s fault, but the quarterback touches the ball every snap. I used that feeling to fuel myself to get pumped up for this game.”
Brennan completed 6 of 15 passes for 90 yards Saturday and his lone interception worked like a punt. He has now quarterbacked two consecutive comeback victories.
Cal Poly (5-1, 2-0), which might move up from No. 5 today in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA rankings, won the Horseshoe Classic for the first time since the 16th-ranked Aggies (2-3, 0-1) moved to the I-AA level in 2003. After the game, Cal Poly players and coaches celebrated en masse around the Golden Horseshoe trophy.
“It’s one of our season goals every year,” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said of beating UC Davis. “We come up with four or five goals and that’s right there at the top.”
Cal Poly, now second among 117 Division I-AA teams in fewest points allowed per game (9.7), held UC Davis’ vaunted spread offense to a 5-for-16 conversion rate on third down. The Aggies had twice as many first downs (18) as the Mustangs, but were outrushed 121-59 and forced to punt seven times.
“Especially on defense, we’re very confident,” said Cal Poly senior middle linebacker Kyle Shotwell, who had 10 tackles and a sack. “If there is a play to be made, everyone feels like they can make it. No one’s scared to make a play.”
That the swarming double-eagle flex Cal Poly defense did, time and again harassing UC Davis senior quarterback Jon Grant in a way the Walter Payton Award candidate had not seen earlier in the season.
Grant was 18 of 40 for 231 yards and two touchdowns, but was picked off once, sacked three times and had to endure 12 quarterback hurries.
“None of us thought we were going to shut out Davis,” Ellerson said. “That’s as good an offense as we’ve seen. Frankly, that’s a great effort to hold them to 17 (points).”
After trailing 10-3 at halftime, field position was the biggest reason Cal Poly was able to outscore UC Davis 17-0 in the third quarter.
“We were pinned down in our territory so deep,” UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs said. “You’re a little bit nervous about what you’re calling. Field position in that third quarter was tough.”
The turning point was a safety out of the south end zone accounted for by Wes Pryor’s block of a Gabe Ellis punt, narrowing the deficit to 10-5 just 1:56 into the third quarter.
“We needed something to pick us up and that was the spark,” Shotwell said. “Wes Pryor tore it up on special teams.”
Cal Poly sophomore tailback and Walter Payton Award candidate James Noble carried 23 times for 121 yards and a touchdown. His 2-yard scoring plunge with 7:53 left in the third quarter and subsequent two-point conversion run gave the Mustangs a 13-10 lead.
Sophomore wideout Ramses Barden caught three passes for 71 yards for the Mustangs.
Cal Poly kicker Nick Coromelas was 2 for 3 and landed four punts inside UC Davis’ 20-yard line.
Senior free safety Kenny Chicoine returned a third-quarter interception 23 yards to set up Brennan’s touchdown run. On the play, Chicoine tied Cal Poly’s all-time record for interceptions (17).
“They were mixing it up,” UC Davis preseason All-American receiver Tony Kays said of the Mustangs’ defense. “I think No. 1 (defense) in the nation isn’t too far off.”