Cal Poly to Open Big Sky Schedule at Home Against Montana on Saturday

Dano Graves prepares to pitch ball to Kori Garcia during home opener against San Diego on Sept. 10.
Dano Graves prepares to pitch ball to Kori Garcia during home opener against San Diego on Sept. 10.



SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (2-1, 0-0 Big Sky), which bounced back from a season-opening overtime loss at Nevada with victories over eight-time Pioneer League champion San Diego and No. 9/10-ranked South Dakota State the last two weeks, opens Big Sky Conference play Saturday afternoon by hosting two-time Football Championship Subdivision national champion Montana (2-0, 0-0 Big Sky) inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (11,075).

The Mustangs and Grizzlies kick off at 12:05 p.m. PDT and the game will be broadcast live on ROOT SPORTS with Tom Glasgow providing the play-by-play, Jason Stiles serving as the analyst and Jen Mueller reporting from the sidelines. The game also will be broadcast by ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Ramses Barden (analyst). Links for an audio stream as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at There will be no video stream.

Montana, under second-year head coach Bob Stitt, is coming off a bye week after posting victories over Saint Francis (Pa.) 41-31 at home and a 20-14 triumph at then-No. 3 Northern Iowa. The Griz have climbed to No. 6 in both the STATS media and FCS Coaches polls while Cal Poly moved within two spots of reaching the top 25 in both polls.

Brady Gustafson completed 28 of 43 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns as Montana rallied from a 10-6 halftime deficit with 35 second-half points to beat Saint Francis. Gustafson also rushed 10 times for 29 yards and two scores while running back John Nguyen contributed 53 yards on 14 trips. Against Northern Iowa, Jerry Louie-McGee returned a punt 81 yards for a score, Gustafson completed 14 of 30 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown and Nguyen netted 76 yards on 24 carries.

Nguyen has rushed for 129 yards in two games while Gustafson has completed 57.5 percent of his passes (42 of 73) for 471 yards and four touchdowns. Louie-McGee is Gustafson's favorite target with 11 catches for 93 yards. Tim Semenza has made all four of his field goal attempts, including one from 47 yards. Free safety Justin Strong leads the defensive charge for the Grizzlies with 18 tackles while linebacker Josh Buss has 16 stops, three for lost yardage.

Utilizing a spread offense and 4-3 defense, Montana is averaging 30.5 points and 363 yards in total offense (128 rushing, 236 passing) while giving up 22.5 points and 302 yards on defense (113 rushing, 189 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 two weeks ago 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. Cal Poly outscored the Toreros in the final 31 minutes of the game to erase a 13-10 deficit.

Last week at South Dakota State, Protheroe earned his third consecutive 100-yard game, posting career highs of 31 carries and 217 yards, and Graves completed nine of 11 passes for 161 yards. Kyle Lewis ran for 66 yards and one touchdown and caught five passes, one for another score, while junior safety Aaryn Bouzos sealed the win with an interception just inside the two-minute mark.

Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 45-38, 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 (pictured at left with Jack Ferguson) (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. 1 in rushing (392.3 yards per game) and also sport national rankings of No. 1 in red zone offense (100 percent), No. 2 in passing yards per completion (18.58), No. 14 in turnovers lost (2), No. 7 in time of possession (34:37) and No. 8 in total offense (510.0). Cal Poly's defense also has put up some vastly improved numbers in its first three games, ranked No. 28 in total defense (317.0), No. 28 in rushing defense (123,3) and No. 40 in passing defense (193.7).

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 second season at Montana, Bob Stitt (10-5, Doane College '87) guided the Grizzlies into the second round of the FCS playoffs. Innovator of the fly sweep system, Stitt was hired as Montana's 36th head football coach on December 19, 2014, replacing Mick Delaney, who retired after three seasons at the helm of the Griz.

Stitt compiled a 108-62 record in 15 seasons as head coach at Colorado School of Mines, including 13 winning campaigns and three Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles. He was a running back and return specialist at Doane College in Nebraska in the mid-1980s and also played baseball (left field) and ran track (4-by-100 relay). His coaching career includes one season (1989) as a graduate assistant at Northern Colorado, four seasons (1990-93) as offensive coordinator at Doane, five seasons (1994-98) as associate head coach at Austin College and one season (1999) as offensive coordinator at Harvard before taking over at Colorado School of Mines in 2000.

Cal Poly and Montana are meeting for the 20th time Saturday and, though the Mustangs have won the last two meetings, the Griz still hold a commanding 15-4 advantage in the series which began in 1969. In addition to the win at Montana in the 2015 season opener, Cal Poly also owns a 41-21 triumph two years ago in Alex G. Spanos Stadium, a 35-33 win in 2010 in San Luis Obispo and a 35-21 victory in the opening round of the 2005 FCS playoffs at Missoula.

Tim Walsh is 5-12 against Montana, including a 2-9 mark while at Portland State from 1993 to 2006, while Bob Stitt is 0-1 against Cal Poly. The Mustangs are 2-11 in Missoula and 2-4 against the Griz at home.

Montana returned 28 lettermen, including 10 offensive and defensive starters, off last year's team which went 8-5 overall and finished tied for second place in the Big Sky at 6-2. The Griz won 19 Big Sky championships from 1969 to 2011, have earned 24 FCS playoff berths, including an FCS-record 17 consecutive trips to the postseason from 1993 to 2009) and claimed national titles in 1995 and 2001.

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 93 of its last 152 contests (61 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 17 of its last 35 and 37 of 76 on the road while producing 11 winning seasons in the last 15 years.

Next week, Cal Poly continues Big Sky Conference play by visiting North Dakota on Saturday, Oct. 1. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. PDT.