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by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland State running back DJ Adams cuts upfield against Cal Poly in the Vikings' Big Sky opener Thursday night at Jeld-Wen Field. PSU led 21-7 at the half before falling 38-34.All that could have been simply wasn't to be for Portland State Thursday night at Jeld-Wen Field.

The Vikings could have knocked off a quality opponent in 18th-ranked Cal Poly. Could have started the Big Sky Conference season with a win. Could have improved their record to 4-1 and earned their first national ranking since 2007. Could have made a statement toward gaining attention for a program that is all but invisible in the Portland community.

Didn't happen. Cal Poly stormed back from a 21-7 halftime deficit, gaining 297 of its 431 rushing yards after intermission in a 38-34 victory.

"The second half, we totally dominated the game," said Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh, who made a triumphant return to the stadium where he coached Portland State from 1993-2006.

It was a crushing defeat for fourth-year PSU coach Nigel Burton, once an assistant to Walsh in the Park Blocks. The Vikings (3-2) had the Mustangs (2-2) on their heels in the first half. They outgained the visitors 280-151 in total offense and 149-17 in passing yardage, with quarterback Kieran McDonagh throwing touchdown passes to Alex Toureen and Victor Dean in the corner of the end zone.

"To defend our offense, you load the box and say, 'OK, you have to throw it,' " Burton said. "As much as we want to be able to still run the ball, we took advantage that we had better guys (than the Cal Poly defense) outside. When we did that, it was 1-2-3 (touchdowns)."

But things turned around in the third quarter. Suddenly, Portland State couldn't run much and Cal Poly was ripping off large chunks of real estate on the ground.

Defensively, Walsh said, "We came out and made a commitment that we were going to play the run, and if (the Vikings) threw the ball, they threw it. We played the run extremely well."

The Mustangs got it going offensively, too, with quarterback Chris Brown netting 120 of his 129 rushing yards in the second half and tailback Kristaan Ivory (32 carries, 184 yards) picking up 98 after intermission. That opened it up for Brown to complete a 54-yard touchdown pass to Akaninyene Umoh, a play that provided a 31-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

In the second half, Walsh said, "We did a good job taking the plays we had and narrowing it down so could get the ball to the perimeter. That opened up some stuff inside, and then the big pass play comes because of all our runs."

Cal Poly finished with 31 first downs and 518 yards total offense. Brown, a 6-1, 195-pound sophomore who is playing because of injuries to Vince Moraga and Dano Graves, completed only 6 of 18 passes for 87 yards, but two of them went for touchdowns. Brown can't much pass, but he certainly can run, and in the second half, the Vikings couldn't get their mitts on him.

As much as anything, though, the Vikings succumbed to self-inflicted wounds in this one.

There was a missed 22-yard field goal and extra point by Nick Fernandez. There were 11 penalties for 92 yards (though Cal Poly outdid them with 11 penalties for 110 yards), including a rare roughing-the-snapper call on a fourth-down field-goal attempt that paved the way for the Mustangs' final touchdown.

Then, moments later, with Portland State driving and facing fourth-and-2 from the Cal Poly 11, there was a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty after a timeout. ("That was on us completely," Burton said, blaming the PSU coaching staff. "That wasn't on the kids.")

That left the Vikings, trailing 38-28 with nearly six minutes to play, with fourth-and-7 at the 16. Instead of attempting a field goal, Burton chose to go for it, and McDonagh's pass sailed incomplete.

Did Burton consider kicking the field goal?

"No," he said. "We'd been way too inconsistent (with the kicking game). And to be honest, we believe in our offense. We believe in their ability to convert and make big plays."

Portland State made some big plays and had enough offense to win most games. The Vikings, who entered the game leading the nation's FCS schools in rushing yardage (328) and ranking second in total offense (612), finished with 185 yards rushing and 487 yards total offense. McDonagh completed 16 of 32 passes for 302 yards and four scores, three of them to 6-6, 210-pound Fresno State transfer Victor Dean.

The Vikings "are good on offense," Walsh said. "They played throw-it-up in the second quarter. We're not very big at corner, and they took advantage of it. (Dean) made some plays.

"But when we got momentum and we play at that pace, we're tough to stop. We wore them out in the second half."

Walsh said there was no nostalgia in his feelings about the victory on his old stomping grounds.

"While we were out there, it was just Cal Poly against Portland State," he said. "Maybe I'll have time to think about it later tonight.

"That was really just about a great second-half performance. It's one of the more special wins of my career. We're down 21-7 against a team that's averaging 600 yards, and we come back to beat them at their place. That's a good win."

It was a bad loss for Burton, who won't mince words when he speaks to his players during Sunday's game video session.

"There are going to be a couple plays that will break their hearts," he said. "We were flying around that first half, making things happen. The second half, there was a little more tentativeness, a little more … of those things that can't happen."

It doesn't mean Portland State can't realize its dream of making the FCS' 24-team playoffs. It just means the road gets a little more difficult.

"With the history of the Big Sky … it's pretty rare to find a year where the team that won (the conference title) had no losses," Burton said. "It doesn't deter from our goal and what we want to accomplish.

"But we have to play a heck of a lot smarter than we did tonight. We had some critical penalties and critical moments, silly things that ultimately cost us the game."

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