WEEKLY NOTES: CAL POLY | NEVADA | BIG SKY
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SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-0, 0-0 Big Sky), which despite a 4-7 mark a year ago finished No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision in team rushing for the third straight season, opens its 2016 campaign Friday night with a non-conference game at Nevada (0-0, 0-0 Mountain West) inside newly renovated Mackay Stadium (30,000).
Playing a Football Bowl Subdivision team for the 12th straight season, Cal Poly and Nevada kick off at 6:30 p.m. PDT and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester calling the play-by-play and Eric Burdick serving as an analyst. Links for video and audio streams as well as live stats are available at www.GoPoly.com.
Nevada, under fourth-year head coach Brian Polian, is coming off a 7-6 season in 2015, which included a 4-4 mark for a second-place tie in the Mountain West's West Division and a 28-23 victory over Colorado State in the Arizona Bowl. A total of 14 starters -- nine on offense -- return, led by quarterback Tyler Stewart, running back James Butler, wide receivers Hasaan Henderson and Jerico Richardson and defensive back Asauni Rufus.
Stewart completed 57 percent of his 326 pass attempts for 2,139 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2015. Butler led the Wolf Pack running attack with 1,342 yards (6.5 average per carry) and 10 touchdowns while Richardson (68 catches) and Henderson (52) topped the receiving corps. Rufus was Nevada's No. 1 tackler a year ago with 105 stops.
Utilizing the pistol offense, the Wolf Pack averaged 375 yards in total offense and 26.2 points per game a year ago while giving up 405 yards and 27 points a contest.
In 2015, Cal Poly was ranked as high as No. 17 by the media and No. 18 by the coaches before a late September loss at Montana State. After losing six of seven games, the Mustangs earned wins over in-state rivals Sacramento State and UC Davis, their only two-game winning streak of the year, before dropping a 45-21 decision to North Dakota in the 2015 season finale.
Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 43-37, UC Riverside '77), Cal Poly begins its 98th season of football with 48 returning lettermen, including 13 who started at least three games a year ago, seven on offense and six on defense.
Quarterback Chris Brown, who rushed and passed for over 3,000 yards each in his Mustang career, is gone. Taking over the signal-calling duties will be senior Dano Graves, who utilized his redshirt year last fall after playing in 11 games as a sophomore and junior, rushing for 536 yards and passing for 499 more. The Folsom High School graduate started five games as a sophomore in 2013 and was Brown's backup as a junior in 2014.
Cal Poly's strength offensively is in its group of running backs as well as the offensive line. Joining Graves in the offensive backfield are fullbacks Joe Protheroe (779 yards, six touchdowns, first-team All-Big Sky) and Jared Mohamed (463 yards, three touchdowns) along with slot backs Kori Garcia (1,819 yards, 12 touchdowns and 27 catches in last two seasons combined, All-Big Sky second team in 2014, All-Big Sky third team in 2015) and DJ Peluso (278 yards rushing, eight catches in 2015). Another slot back, Kyle Lewis, scored four times at Southern Utah, was one of four 100-yard rushers in that game for Cal Poly, and finished the year with 336 yards and six scores.
The offensive line needs to replace center Stephen Sippel and right tackle Weston Walker, both members of the 2016 National Football Foundation's Hampshire Honor Society. Joey Kuperman (11 starts at right guard in 2015, All-Big Sky honorable mention) moves to center this fall. Matt Fisher (11 starts in 2015) returns at left tackle while Nick Enriquez (22 starts over last two seasons) moves from left guard to right tackle.
Two linebackers and three defensive backs graduated, but Walsh is confident with their replacements on the defensive side of the ball. In cornerbacks Jerek Rosales and Kevin Griffin, Walsh has a pair of 6-1 corners for the first time in his eight seasons at Cal Poly.. B.J. Nard, who intercepted three passes at Montana in 2015, returns at right safety, joined by redshirt freshman Kitu Humphrey or sophomore Aaron Johnson at left safety. Aaryn Bouzos, who played all 11 games a year ago, backs up the safeties as well.
Josh Letuligasenoa, who sat out the 2015 campaign, returns for his final season and after being a defensive end for two years, becomes a rush linebacker in the 3-4 defensive scheme this fall. Joseph Gigantino III (75 tackles, 9.5 TFLs) moves from Sam to Mike, and filling the outside linebacker positions will be R.J. Mazolewski (71 tackles, 7.5 TFLs) and Chris Santini (nine tackles, All-Big Sky honorable mention on special teams).
The defensive front is anchored by tackles Augustino Elisaia (11 starts at nose tackle, 15 tackles in 2015) and Marcus Paige-Allen (65 tackles over last two seasons combined, All-Big Sky third team in 2014, All-Big Sky honorable mention in 2015) along with end Kelly Shepard (41 tackles, 11 starts in 2015).
Cal Poly was No. 1 in the FCS in rushing offense (309.1) in 2013, duplicated the feat in 2014 by averaging 351.8 yards on the ground and broke school and Big Sky records by averaging 387.3 yards per game on the ground last fall.
Last fall, the Mustangs also were No. 3 in first downs (284), No. 8 in total offense (478.5), No. 10 in sacks allowed (1.0 per game), No. 5 in fourth-down conversions (72.5 percent) and No. 19 in third-down conversions (45.4 percent).
Cal Poly opened the 2015 campaign with a 20-19 win at Montana as Alex Vega kicked a 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining. The following week, the Mustangs battled Arizona State to a 21-21 draw in the first 52 minutes before the Sun Devils scored two late touchdowns for the 35-21 triumph.
That setback started a streak of six losses in seven games for Cal Poly. During the run, Cal Poly let a 21-13 third-quarter lead get away against Portland State and were within two points, 33-31, midway through the third quarter at Southern Utah before falling 54-37. In those two games, Cal Poly lost nine fumbles. The top three teams in the Big Sky last fall were the champion Thunderbirds, runner-up Vikings and third-place Montana.
In his fourth season at Nevada, Polian (18-20, John Carroll '97) has guided the Wolf Pack to back-to-back bowl games (Nevada has played in 10 bowl games over the past 11 seasons). Prior to taking over at Nevada, Polian was an assistant coach at Texas A&M, Stanford, Notre Dame, Central Florida and Buffalo. He worked as a graduate assistant at both Michigan State and Baylor.
Doug Lichtenberger enters his first season at Nevada as the Wolf Pack's Director of Football and Recruiting Operations. Lichtenberger was a four-year letter winner as an offensive lineman at Cal Poly from 1993-97. He received his bachelor's degree in liberal studies at Cal Poly in 1998.
Cal Poly and Nevada are meeting for the 10th time in football this weekend. The teams last met in 1998, also in Reno, and the 63-0 Wolf Pack victory marked the last time the Mustangs were shut out. Cal Poly has scored in 194 consecutive games since that Nov. 14, 1998, setback. Nevada has won the last four meetings after Cal Poly had won three straight matchups in 1970, 1972 and 1974. The Wolf Pack won the first two games of the series, both by shutout in 1941 and 1942.
Tim Walsh is 0-0 against Nevada while Brian Polian is 0-0 against Cal Poly.
Walsh added three new coaches to the staff during the offseason. Todd Spencer (Army, Navy, Georgia Tech) is the new offensive line coach, Payam Saadat (Army, Central Washington) returns for his third coaching stint with the Mustangs as defensive line coach and Eric Coleman (JSerra Catholic High School) is back with the fullbacks and tight ends after a one-year absence.
In addition, quarterbacks coach Juston Wood was promoted to offensive coordinator.
A year ago, Brown surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight season, the only Mustang quarterback to surpass the milestone. Garcia rushed for 1,039 yards in 2014, becoming the 18th Mustang to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for a season. Brown also achieved the distinction of scoring a touchdown by rushing, passing and receiving twice in his Mustang career (Weber State in 2014, UC Davis in 2015).
Cal Poly, which captured the 2012 Big Sky title in its first year in the conference, was picked by head coaches and media this summer to finish ninth in the 13-team Big Sky. Northern Arizona was picked by both the coaches and media to win the Big Sky crown.
With a 4-1 record at home in 2014 and a 2-3 mark last fall, the Mustangs have won 56 of their last 72 home contests (78 percent). Overall, Cal Poly has won 57 of its last 96 games (59 percent) and 91 of 149 contests (61 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 17 of its last 36 and 36 of 74 on the road (3-4 in 2014, 2-4 in 2015).
The Mustangs captured four Great West Conference titles in the eight-year history of the league (2004, 2005, 2008, 2011) before moving to the Big Sky in 2012 and have earned NCAA Division I FCS playoff berths in 2005, 2008 and 2012.
Next week, Cal Poly plays its home opener on Saturday, Sept. 10, against the University of San Diego at 4:05 p.m. inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Celebrate the Future and Youth Day are the promotions and fans are encouraged to wear green.
Cal Poly Opens 2016 Campaign by Visiting Nevada on Friday Night
WEEKLY NOTES: CAL POLY | NEVADA | BIG SKY