Coaching is always about winning, but sometimes, it's also about surviving.
Tim Walsh has done a nice job in both departments, which is the reason why he's in his 29th season as a head football coach at the college level.
Walsh brings his FCS-level Cal Poly Mustangs to Corvallis at 1:15 p.m. Saturday to face Oregon State, familiar ground for the man who served as head coach at Portland State for 14 years.
"No question, it would be a great win for us," Walsh said via telephone from San Luis Obispo, California, as he watched video of the Mustangs' 41-24 loss last Saturday at Weber State. "Our players are looking forward to having an opportunity to play in that environment. We're going to have to play our very best. If we make mistakes against those guys, we won't last long."
Walsh, 64, owns a 174-141 record as a college head coach, including 14 years at Portland State, where he was 90-68 from 1993-2006. Walsh's PSU teams posted winning records 10 times, and three of the four losing seasons came as the Vikings transitioned from Division II to FCS in 1996.
Now in his 11th year at Cal Poly, Walsh has had winning records six times, the last in 2016, but has never won a Big Sky championship. The Mustangs went 1-10 in 2017, then won four of their last six games to finish 5-6 last season, 4-4 in league play. They are 1-1 this season, hammering San Diego 52-34 in their opener before falling 41-24 to Weber State last Saturday.
With its run-oriented, triple-option offense in full gear, Cal Poly led San Diego 52-14 in the third quarter and piled up 386 yards rushing and 607 yards total offense. The Mustangs scored on each of the first eight possessions.
It wasn't nearly as easy at Weber State, which had lost 6-0 at San Diego State — a team that beat UCLA 23-14 last Saturday — in its opener. The Wildcats were 10-3 overall and 7-1 in Big Sky play the previous year, losing in the second round of the FCS playoffs. In last Saturday's loss at Ogden, Utah, Cal Poly was held to 164 yards rushing and 346 yards total offense. The Mustangs were twice halted on the Wildcats' 1-yard line.
"I'm feeling it a little today," Walsh said. "They're good. They played San Diego State square up. But we made three mistakes in about a seven-minute period that cost us. We took ourselves right out of the game."
Cal Poly fullback Duy Tran-Sampson, a 6-2 sophomore, rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries against San Diego. The Wildcats held him to eight yards in five tries.
"They did a good job on the inside run," Walsh said. "We had 52 total plays, a record low during my time (at Cal Poly). We averaged 85 plays a game last year."
Running the offense is quarterback Jalen Hamler, a 6-1, 195-pound redshirt freshman who would seem to have a big future. In the first two games of his career, Hamler has completed 19 of 25 passes (76 percent) for 403 yards and three TDs and run for 181 yards and three scores.
"Jalen is a really good athlete, is smart, has a great presence about him," Walsh said. "He has the 'it' factor as far as his personality."
Walsh is disappointed with the performance in the first two games of his defense, which returned nine of 11 starters from a year ago. Cal Poly has yielded an average of 37.5 points and 496 yards total offense.
"Defense was supposed to be our strength, but so far, it's been almost the opposite," Walsh said. "And we're young on offense."
As we spoke, Walsh was in the process of watching video of Oregon State's 31-28 loss last Saturday at Hawaii.
"I'm sure (the Beavers) felt they should have won, and they certainly could have," Walsh said. "Their offensive skill guys are good. They're going to score points. The defense is young, but it's stout on the line, and they have size at linebacker, too. They're only going to get better.
"Jonathan (Smith, OSU's head coach) does a good job. It's not an easy job. Eventually, he'll get the talent he needs to get things done."
Walsh said the thing that stood out most to him were running backs Jermar Jefferson and Artavis Pierce.
"Those guys are legit — upper Pac-12-level backs, for sure," he said. "They get your attention right away. They are powerful and they are fast."
Walsh is concerned with his own program right now. It's a battle in that he is fighting with a smaller budget than some of his Big Sky brethren — the Mustangs are operating with 57 1/2 scholarships, lower than the FCS limit of 63 — as he vies for supremacy in the conference with the likes of Weber State, Eastern Washington, UC Davis, Montana and Montana State.
It's been a long road for Walsh, who began his college coaching career as an assistant coach at Santa Clara in 1986. He still enjoys coaching — most of it.
"The administrative stuff gets fatiguing, and there are a lot of headaches that go along with being a head coach," he said. "What I like most is getting on the field with the players, the experience of the game, working with my coaches."
Among those on his current staff are associate head coach/offensive coordinator Jim Craft, who coached under Walsh at Portland State; assistant head coach/slotbacks coach Aristotle Thompson, who played at Jesuit High; and receivers/special teams coach Dan Ferrigno, who coached at both Oregon and Oregon State. But it's hard for Walsh to keep assistants because of payroll limits and the high cost of living on the central California coast.
"I have a really good staff," he said. "Some with a lot of experience, and some good young coaches, too. That's what we're going to get here."
Walsh's Cal Poly teams are 1-13 against FBS opposition, having beaten Wyoming 24-22 in 2012. In terms of vulnerability among FBS programs, Oregon State would seem to be near the top of the list. Walsh would never say that, of course, and knows a lot of things must fall into place for the Mustangs to pull off the upset.
"We have to run the ball more consistently than we did against Weber State," he said. "We can't turn it over, and our defense is going to have to find a way to get off the field on third down.
"We're an offensive possession-based team. If we can just keep the ball and put pressure on their offense, that gives us a chance to be in the game into the fourth quarter."
Walsh has won plenty of games through his long coaching career. He has survived the minefield, too, that comes with college football. Those down moments would be worth it if he could walk off the Reser Stadium field a winner Saturday afternoon.
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