Cal Poly Football to Host San Diego for Home Opener Saturday Afternoon

Josh Letuligasenoa tackles San Diego quarterback Keith Williams in 2014 season finale.
Josh Letuligasenoa tackles San Diego quarterback Keith Williams in 2014 season finale.

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   CAL POLY
| SAN DIEGO | BIG SKY

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SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-1, 0-0 Big Sky), which despite advantages in first downs, total offense and time of possession lost its season opener in overtime at Nevada, opens the home portion of its 2016 campaign Saturday afternoon with a non-conference game against California Football Championship Subdivision rival San Diego (1-0, 0-0 Pioneer League) inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (11,075).

Playing the first of three games this season against an FCS opponent from the Golden State, Cal Poly and San Diego kick off at 4:05 p.m. PDT and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester calling the play-by-play and Ramses Barden serving as an analyst. Links for video and audio streams as well as live stats are available at www.GoPoly.com. Celebrate the Future and Youth Day are the promotions and fans are encouraged to wear green.

San Diego, under fourth-year head coach Dale Lindsey, is coming off a 9-2 season in 2015, which included a 7-1 mark for a first-place tie in the Pioneer Football League. A total of 14 starters -- eight on defense -- return, led by quarterback Anthony Lawrence, running backs Jereke Armstrong and Blake Martin, wide receivers Ross Dwelley and Brian Riley and defensive backs Colton Giorgi, Devyn Bryant and Jamal Agnew.

Lawrence completed 188 of 295 passes (64 percent) for 2,392 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015 and his favorite targets were Dwelley (54 catches, 580 yards, three TDs) and Riley (44-782-8). Armstrong rushed for 662 yards and seven touchdowns while Martin added 329 yards and three scores. Bryant (5-8) and Agnew (4-11) combined for nine interceptions and 11 pass breakups last fall and Giorgi was the Toreros' top tackler with 64.

Utilizing a multiple-set offense and 4-3 defense, San Diego blanked Western New Mexico 27-0 last week as Lawrence connected on 17 of 26 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown, a 16-yarder to Dwelley. Jonah Hodges, who broke his collarbone in the 2015 opener, opened his senior campaign with 106 yards on 16 carries and two scores (2, 31 yards) and caught six passes for 53 yards.

Cal Poly, unranked but receiving votes in both the STATS.com media and FCS coaches polls this week, compiled advantages of 23-18 in first downs, 445-363 in total offense and 36:09 to 23:51 in time of possession and erased a 14-point deficit with two fourth-quarter runs by senior quarterback Dano Graves, but dropped a 30-27 overtime decision at Football Bowl Subdivision member Nevada last week. James Butler's five-yard run overcame Casey Sublette's 37-yard field goal for the win in the extra period. Graves finished with a career-high 140 yards on 26 rushes and Joe Protheroe added 116 yards on 27 trips, giving the Mustangs a pair of 100-yard rushers in a game for the 16th time in the last four-plus seasons.

Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 43-38, UC Riverside '77), Cal Poly began 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. 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, takes over the signal-calling duties. 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).

Against Nevada last week and surrendering 21 points and 176 yards in the first quarter, the Mustang defense stiffened the rest of the way. In the final three quarters of regulation, Cal Poly held Nevada to one field goal, nine first downs and 262 total yards. In the third quarter alone, Nevada mustered no points, no first downs and just seven yards of offense.

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.

The Mustangs in 2015 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.

But the Mustangs 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. 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 San Diego, Dale Lindsey (27-8, Western Kentucky '64) has guided the Toreros to three straight winning seasons and an FCS playoff berth in 2014. San Diego finished tied for first place with Dayton in the 2015 Pioneer League standings and Dayton earned the automatic berth in the FCS playoffs by virtue of its 13-12 win over the Toreros.

Lindsey was hired as San Diego's head coach on December 29, 2012, replacing Ron Caragher, who was hired as head coach at San Jose State. Lindsey, San Diego's defensive coordinator in 2012 and linebackers coach in 2008, was at New Mexico State from 2009-11 as an assistant head coach and linebackers coach. His resume also includes over 30 years of football coaching at the high school, college and professional ranks. Most recently with the Washington Redskins (2004-06), Lindsey also spent time on the San Diego Chargers staff as defensive coordinator (2002-03) and linebackers coach (1992-96). Lindsey played both linebacker and fullback for two years at Western Kentucky.

Cal Poly and San Diego met for three straight years from 2012-14 and Cal Poly won them all, 41-14 in 2012, 38-16 in 2013 (wiping out a 17-10 halftime deficit) and 34-3 in the 2014 finale. First meeting of the series was in 1959, a season opener for both teams, and was won by the Mustangs 36-14 in then-Mustang Stadium.

Tim Walsh is 3-0 against San Diego while Dale Lindsey is 0-2 against Cal Poly.

San Diego produced a balanced offensive attack against Western New Mexico -- 192 yards on the ground and 211 through the air -- for 403 yards in total offense. The Torero defense gave up just 70 rushing yards and 142 passing yards for 212 total.

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.

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.

The Mustangs have won 56 of their last 72 home contests (78 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 57 of its last 97 games (59 percent) and 91 of 150 contests (60 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 17 of its last 37 and 36 of 75 on the road while producing 11 winning seasons in the last 15 years.

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 visits South Dakota State of the Missouri Valley Football Conference in brand new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium (19,340). Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. PDT.