Cal Poly to Face First of Four Ranked Football Opponents on Saturday

Junior slot back Kyle Lewis scores on 57-yard pass from Dano Graves late in second quarter Saturday.
Junior slot back Kyle Lewis scores on 57-yard pass from Dano Graves late in second quarter Saturday.

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SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (1-1, 0-0 Big Sky), which bounced back from a season-opening overtime loss at Nevada with a come-from-behind win over San Diego last weekend, plays its final non-conference game of the 2016 campaign Saturday by visiting No. 9/10 South Dakota State (1-1, 0-0 Missouri Valley) at brand new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium (19,340).

The Mustangs and Jackrabbits 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 Eric Burdick serving as an analyst. The game also will be telecast live on the Midco Sports Network and simulcast on ESPN3 (Tom Nieman (play-by-play), Hank McCall (color) and Carla Metts (sideline)). Links for video and audio streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.

South Dakota State, under 20th-year head coach John Stiegelmeier, is coming off an 8-4 season in 2015, which included a 5-3 mark for a third-place tie in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. A total of 15 starters -- seven on offense, six on defense and two special teams players -- return, led by quarterback Zach Lujan, tight end Dallas Goedert, wide receivers Jake Wieneke and Connor Landberg, running back Brady Mengarelli, linebacker Jesse Bobbit and safety Nick Farina.

Lujan, a senior, battled sophomore Taryn Christion for the starting nod in Fall Camp. Lujan started eight games last fall and passed for 1,861 yards while rushing for minus-19 yards and Christion made four starts in 2015 with 1,286 passing yards and 347 rushing yards. Christion has started the first two games this season, completing 43 of 58 passes (74 percent) for 557 yards and seven touchdowns to lead the Jackrabbits to a 56-28 win over Drake last week after a nationally televised 59-41 loss at No. 13 TCU the week before.

Wieneke has 11 receptions for 215 yards and five scores in two games this season while Goedert has made nine catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Mengarelli has rushed for 116 yards and sophomore Isaac Wallace has compiled 125 rushing yards and one touchdown. Redshirt freshman linebacker Christian Rozeboom leads the South Dakota State defense with 20 tackles and five different Jackrabbit defenders have an  interception.

Utilizing a pro-set offense and 3-4 defense, South Dakota State is averaging 48.5 points and 461 yards in total offense (158 rushing, 303 passing) while giving up 43.5 points and 486 yards on defense (155 rushing, 331 passing).

Despite compiling advantages of 23-18 in first downs, 445-363 in total offense and 36:09 to 23:51 in time of possession, Cal Poly fell 30-27 in overtime at Nevada. The Mustangs bounced back with a 38-16 triumph over San Diego in their home opener as junior fullback Joe Protheroe rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns and senior quarterback Dano Graves added 98 yards and one score on the ground while passing for 130 yards and two more touchdowns. Kori Garcia (27 yards) and Kyle Lewis (57 yards) caught the scoring passes for the Mustangs, who overcame a 13-10 deficit late in the second quarter by outscoring the Toreros 28-3 the rest of the way.

Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 44-38, 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).

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 2016 Mustangs are currently ranked No. 2 in rushing (368.5 yards per game) and also sport national rankings of No. 1 in red zone offense (100 percent), No. 3 in passing yards per completion (19.20), No. 6 in turnover lost (1), No. 12 in time of possession (34:04) and No. 19 in total offense. Cal Poly's defense also has put up some impressive numbers in its first two games, ranked No. 22 in total defense (307.5) and No. 26 in passing defense (158.0).

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 20th season at South Dakota State, John Stiegelmeier (129-91, South Dakota State '79) has guided the Jackrabbits to five FCS playoff berths, including each of the last four seasons. The Jackrabbits won first-round contests in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and have finished in the top 25 of both major FCS polls in seven of the last 10 seasons. Under Stiegelmeier's leadership, South Dakota State has posted 10 winning seasons in the school's 12 campaigns at the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) level, compiling an 86-57 record since moving to the FCS ranks in 2004. Overall, the Jackrabbits have had a winning record in 15 of Stiegelmeier's 19 years as head coach.

The Jackrabbits were members of the Great West Conference from 2004-07 and claimed the 2007 Great West title before joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2008. Among the former Jackrabbits who have enjoyed long NFL careers are kicker Adam Vinatieri, tight end Steve Heiden and offensive lineman Adam Timmerman.

Cal Poly owns a 5-3 advantage in the series with the Jackrabbits. The last meeting was in 2014, also in Brookings, and was won by then-No. 11 South Dakota State 44-18 as backup quarterback Zach Lujan, making his first collegiate start, threw three touchdown passes and senior running back Zach Zenner (now with the Detroit Lions) rushed for 193 yards on 30 carries and scored one touchdown. Mustang senior linebacker Nick Dzubnar (now with the San Diego Chargers) made a career-high 19 tackles.

John Stiegelmeier is 3-5 against Cal Poly while Tim Walsh is 2-1 against South Dakota State.

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 57 of their last 73 home contests (78 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 58 of its last 98 games (59 percent) and 92 of 151 contests (61 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 opens Big Sky Conference play by hosting Montana on Saturday, Sept. 24. Kickoff for the nationally televised game (ROOT Sports) is set for 12 noon.

Photo above of slot back Kyle Lewis courtesy of JJ Moothart