With just under 13 minutes left in Saturday night’s Hall of Fame Game, the Cal Poly football team trailed Southern Utah 14-3 and appeared headed for a second straight loss.
Four turnovers and two Matt Brennan touchdown bombs later, the Mustangs somehow wound up 18-14 winners in front of 8,168 fans in the Great West Football Conference opener at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“It’s as big a (comeback) as I’ve been a part of,” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said. “It certainly ranks right up there. To have so many things that kind of suck the life of your soul out of you – you turn the ball over in scoring position, you have a punt block (returned) for a touchdown. It just doesn’t seem like there’s any way things will happen for you.”
But that they did, thanks to fourth-quarter interceptions by Mark Cordes (who also recovered a key fumble), Randy Samuel and Joe Wighton. The sudden barrage of turnovers by the upstart Thunderbirds (3-2) helped the Mustangs (4-1), ranked fifth in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA poll, become the only 1-0 team in Great West play.
“We’re not going to lose faith in the offense,” said Cal Poly senior free safety Kenny Chicoine, who had three tackles and remained one interception shy of tying the school’s all-time record (17). “We understand that as a defense, we can’t win without our offense. A lot of those turnovers create emotion for the offense to come back out there, establish a drive and go back to work like they did.”
Also back to work for Cal Poly was Walter Payton Award candidate sophomore tailback James Noble, who was returning from a left ankle sprain.
Noble carried 27 times for 130 yards, his 11th 100-yard outing in 16 career games. It was sophomore signal caller Brennan, however, who might have made the biggest return to vogue of all.
After missing the start and being picked off three times Sept. 23 in a 17-7 loss at San Jose State, Brennan started Saturday and threw for 116 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He completed 6 of 16 passes and rushed for 25 yards.
“When Brennan’s on, he’s pretty much automatic,” said Cal Poly wide receiver Tredale Tolver, whose 38-yard touchdown catch from Brennan with 12:08 remaining breathed new life into a struggling offense.
Tolver’s score down the right sideline was set up by Cordes’ fumble recovery. Brennan then hit wide-open H-back Jon Hall on a misdirection play for a two-point conversion that narrowed Southern Utah’s lead to 14-11.
Wighton’s interception with 6:56 left set up Cal Poly’s game-winning drive – a seven-play, 42-yard beauty that was capped with Ramses Barden’s juggling 19-yard touchdown grab in the back right corner of the end zone.
“I felt like we actually had the game,” Southern Utah head coach Wes Meier said. “We were moving the ball fine and then end up having a turnover and they scored on the very next throw. The ironic thing is (Johnny Sanchez) fumbled the ball on the very play which was working so well for us.”
An upset appeared inevitable after Rob Takeno returned a blocked Nick Coromelas punt 11 yards for a touchdown with 1:29 left in the third quarter to give the Thunderbirds a 14-3 advantage.
That’s when the momentum inexplicably changed, perhaps somewhat to the credit of a standing-room only crowd that was on its feet throughout the fourth quarter.
“There’s a great lesson there for the guys,” Ellerson said. “What happened on the last play or quarter, that’s ancient history. Just play the next one. You’d be surprised sometimes with what you can come up with.”
The heart-pounding comeback overshadowed the Mustangs’ four fumbles (two lost), seven punts and seven penalties for 60 yards.
Filling in for standout punter Tim Chicoine, who was nursing a quad injury, Coromelas fared well with the exception of the blocked punt, averaging 43.7 yards with three landing inside Southern Utah’s 20-yard line.
Cal Poly’s Kyle Shotwell had 13 tackles, Ryan Shotwell eight tackles, two sacks and five quarterback hurries and Justen Peek eight tackles (2.5 for loss) and 1.5 sacks.
Coromelas opened the scoring with a 26-yard field goal at the 6:45 mark in the first quarter.
Southern Utah quarterback Wes Marshall, who entered with a touchdown-interception ratio of 10-3, completed 9 of 29 passes for 116 yards and one score with three interceptions.
After starting last week, Cal Poly option quarterback Cordel Webb was inserted for the second series. He ran for three yards.
Cal Poly won when trailing entering the fourth quarter for the first time since it erased a 19-14 deficit in a 20-19 win over Montana State on Nov. 8, 1997.
“We had to capitalize on the turnovers, try to strike quick,” said Tolver, who caught three balls for 63 yards. “Week in, week out, the defense is there for us. This week, we were there for them.”