Cal Poly played its first football game in about 16 months on Saturday.
For the first 30 minutes, it sure looked like it.
The Mustangs shook off the rust in the second half, but by then Southern Utah had built up an insurmountable lead.
The Thunderbirds, up 31-7 at the break, fended off the Mustangs to score a 34-24 win at Spanos Stadium in San Luis Obispo.
Cal Poly hired Beau Baldwin to lead its football program in December of 2019. He had to wait 15 months to coach his first game in San Luis Obispo as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the schedule.
Baldwin's team was shaky in the first half, allowing Southern Utah to score right away on a 73-yard catch-and-run by Brandon Schenks about 90 seconds in.
Southern Utah, which was playing its third game of the season Saturday, was clearly the sharper team in the first half.
"I told the guys after the game, the first half got away from us and it's not the type of football that's going to define us," Baldwin said.
When asked about Southern Utah having played two prior games and how that could have affected the first half, Baldwin said "I mean, that always has a chance to play a part, especially when it's the first game in 15 or 16 months."
After Schenks' long scoring play, Cal Poly answered with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Jalen Hamler to Quentin Harrison with 7:03 left in the first quarter.
The Thunderbirds then scored 24 straight. After a field goal, David Atencio hauled in a short pass and turned it into a 13-yard touchdown.
Dayne Christiansen ripped off a 17-yard scoring run and Schenks scored again on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Justin Miller, who sliced up Cal Poly's defense.
Cal Poly received the second-half kickoff and quickly made use of it, with Hamler connecting with Harrison again, this time on a dazzling one-handed touchdown catch that went for 42 yards.
Harrison had five catches for 66 yards in the game and was clearly Hamler's favorite receiver, being targeted 10 times.
Down 31-14, Cal Poly drove down to the Southern Utah 1 and Baldwin elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the goal line. Running back Chuby Dunu slipped out of the backfield on a swing pass and Hamler threw him a pass that him low on the hands, but Dunu couldn't haul it in resulting in a turnover on downs.
"I'll probably have to look on film to get a clearer picture of what happened," Baldwin said of the play. "Jalen had a little bit (of pressure) in his face, the ball went low and Chuby tried to make the play."
Cal Poly sophomore Colton Theaker, an Arroyo Grande High grad, cut the Southern Utah lead to 31-17 with a 39-yard field goal with 13:11 left in the game.
Cal Poly couldn't quite get over the hump, though. Southern Utah converted another field goal with 5:02 left for a 34-17 edge.
Michael Roth caught a 17-yard strike from Hamler with 1:32 left and the Mustangs couldn't get any closer.
Miller completed 21 of 28 passes for 241 yards and three scores for Southern Utah.
Though the Cal Poly defense had a rough day overall, the linebacking duo of senior Matt Shotwell and junior Fenton Will was solid.
Shotwell had 10 tackles (6 solo) and Will had nine total tackles (6 solo).
Lance Vecchio had five solo tackles and Myles Cecil had the lone sack for the Mustangs.
Hamler was sacked six times. Southern Utah's La'akea Kaho'ohanohano-Davis had two sacks with seven solo tackles. Quaid Murray had 10 total tackles (9 solo) for the Thunderbirds.
Akili Gray intercepted Jalen Hamler in Southern Utah territory with the Mustangs trailing 31-14 and 6:45 left in the third quarter.
Hamler said the team will "take it to the chin and keep moving," adding "I could do a better job of getting the ball out of my hands faster."
Hamler and Harrison certainly had their chemistry working Saturday, with Hamler targeting him 10 times, completing five passes.
"He’s a dog, man," Hamler said of Harrison. "He’s a top playmaker for us."
This was the first game for Baldwin's new up-tempo offense at Cal Poly after 11 seasons with Tim Walsh's triple-option. Hamler completed 22 of 34 passes for 272 yards and three scores. The Mustangs ran 34 times for 99 yards as a team. Lepi Lataimua led the team with 33 yards on 13 carries. Dunu had five carries for 18 yards.
St. Joseph grad CJ Cole had one carry for three yards, one catch for one yard and 73 yards on three kick returns.
Southern Utah out-gained Cal Poly 398 to 319. The Thunderbirds ran for 177 yards as a team.
Southern Utah finished with a pretty hefty advantage in time of possession, 36:38 to 23:22. The Mustangs play their next three games on the road, beginning March 20 at UC Davis.
The Mustangs will be without top returning running back Duy Tran-Sampson, who is out for the season after undergoing offseason surgery. He became Cal Poly's 23rd rusher to top 1,000 yards in 2019, when he had 1,037 yards on 235 carries and eight touchdowns.
Southern Utah improved to 1-2 on the season, after losing the first two games of the year on last-second plays. Big Sky Conference teams are each playing a six-game, all-conference schedule this spring.
Southern Utah out-gained Cal Poly 274 to 106 in the first half and had an 18 to 12 edge in time of possession.