Elijah Ponder returned an interception for a touchdown and Spencer Brasch passed for 318 yards and two scores as Cal Poly earned its first win under head coach Beau Baldwin with a 28-17 decision against the University of San Diego on Saturday inside Torero Stadium.
Ponder stepped in front of a Torero receiver at his own 25-yard line for the theft, broke a tackle at midfield and raced 75 yards for the clinching touchdown with 8:25 to play. That gave the Mustangs a 28-10 lead and San Diego managed just one more score with 50 seconds to go.
Brasch completed 23 of 38 passes with no interceptions and was sacked twice in his Mustang debut. The transfer from Cal connected with Chris Coleman on a 35-yard scoring pass midway through the second quarter and with Xavier Moore on a nine-yard touchdown toss a minute into the final period.
Baldwin won 85 games in nine seasons at Eastern Washington, but it took nearly two years to get win No. 1 at Cal Poly, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It feels amazing but, more more than anything, I just feel so good for the student-athletes,” said Baldwin. “They’ve gone through so much -- 18 months of shutdown and different other things. Coaches do it for years, but the players have such a short window playing college athletics. It’s hard on their mental health.
“I am just so proud of how resilient they have been through all of this, since the time we’ve been here as the new staff, how they have bought into everything we’ve been doing, and the last four months put themselves in a great spot to be able to put a product on the field that they can be really proud of,” Baldwin added. “That’s a tribute to them and I couldn’t be happier earning this first win for them.”
Moore finished with five catches for 61 yards, Coleman had four for 76 and Michael Briscoe and Giancarlo Woods each grabbed three receptions as Brasch’s passing total was the most for a Mustang quarterback since Tony Smith threw for 407 yards against South Dakota in 2009.
“He is going to be very critical of himself, even though his numbers looked solid and he made some gutsy plays,” Baldwin said of Brasch. “First game in the system and he didn’t play much before today. He wasn’t here in spring ball. He’s still just playing his first college football for Cal Poly.
“It’s going to be a growing process,” Baldwin added. “He will be the first one to say he’s going to find some things in which he can elevate his game and I am excited to see that.”
San Diego had the advantage in total yards, 425 to 362, and a large 17-minute advantage in time of possession, but a pair of Torero turnovers were key to the outcome of the game.
Laipeli Palu intercepted Torero quarterback Mason Randall early in the quarter after San Diego had reached Cal Poly’s 25-yard line and almost had a second theft on San Diego’s final drive of the game, tipping the ball into the air and almost getting his hands under it.
Ponder’s interception provided the nail in the coffin. The Toreros again drove to Cal Poly’s 25-yard line when Ponder intercepted Randall and raced 75 yards down the right sideline for the clinching score.
“I think the biggest key was the turnover margin,” Baldwin said. “We created two on defense and we didn’t have any on offense. Taking care of the football and getting it out is everything in college football. And when things didn’t go right like when San Diego started moving the ball and got into the red zone, we also had a couple great red zone stops. Our guys had that mentality in the dead zone.
“Another key is that we struggled a little on offense in the beginning, but we needed to stick to the understanding that you keep trusting what you’re doing and let it come to you,” Baldwin added. “The plays will be there. I thought we did a good job of that from the second quarter on.”
Randall completed 29 of 44 passes for 254 yards and one score for San Diego. Mark Gadanis caught eight balls for 83 yards while Terrence Smith rushed for 82 yards on 14 trips.
Judaea Moon led all defensive players in the game with 14 tackles for Cal Poly. Aaron Cooper added 12 and Matt Shotwell 11. Lance Vecchio notched the lone sack of the game for the Mustangs.
San Diego scored first on a one-yard dive by Randall midway through the first quarter and Cal Poly answered a minute later on a two-yard run by Shakobe Harper. Brasch’s 35-yard scoring pass to Coleman gave Cal Poly the lead for good at 14-7 eight minutes before halftime.
After a San Diego field goal, Cal Poly pulled away with Moore’s nine-yard touchdown pass from Brasch and Ponder’s 75-yard interception return.
The Mustangs are now 7-1 in their all-time series against San Diego.
Cal Poly plays its second game of the season next Saturday at Fresno State. Kickoff inside Bulldog Stadium is set for 7:05 p.m.