Cal Poly Continues Big Sky Schedule on Saturday at Portland State

Cal Poly Continues Big Sky Schedule on Saturday at Portland State


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky), still ranked in the top 25 and coming off a bye week following a 31-24 setback at North Dakota on Oct. 1, continues Big Sky Conference play Saturday afternoon by visiting Portland State (2-4, 1-2 Big Sky), where Tim Walsh coached for 14 seasons.

The Mustangs and Vikings kick off at 2:35 p.m. PDT inside Providence Park (18,627) and the game will be broadcast live by ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Eric Burdick (analyst). Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at

Portland State, under second-year head coach Bruce Barnum, has dropped four of its last five games after a season-opening win over Central Washington. The Vikings are coming off a 9-3 campaign in 2015, Barnum's first as head coach at the Park Blocks, which included a second-place tie in the Big Sky at 6-2 and a berth in the FCS playoffs.

Portland State, ranked in early-season FCS polls, fell to San Jose State and Washington in non-conference games and has opened Big Sky play with losses on the road at Southern Utah and Weber State sandwiched around a home win over Idaho State. Last week in Ogden, Utah, the Vikings fell 14-10 to the Wildcats in a defensive battle that featured just 588 yards in total offense combined. Andrew Vollert caught a 12-yard scoring pass from Jadrian Clark with 8:44 to play, giving Weber State the lead at 14-10 and the Wildcats held on for the win. The Vikings lost despite advantages of 18-15 in first downs, 317-271 in total offense and an eight-minute edge in time of possession.

Cal Poly, which moved within two spots of reaching the top 25 in both the STATS media and FCS coaches polls following its win over then-No. 9-ranked South Dakota State four weeks ago, cracked the Top 25 for the first time this season with its 42-41 Big Sky-opening win over Montana on Sept. 24. Ranked No. 16 by the media and 18th by the coaches after the win over the Griz, Cal Poly fell to Nos. 21 and 22, respectively, following the loss at North Dakota and is ranked Nos. 19 (media) and 20 (coaches) after the bye week.

Cal Poly let a 14-10 third-quarter lead slip away at North Dakota and rallied late from a 31-17 deficit before the Mustangs' comeback hopes were dashed by a Fighting Hawk interception in the end zone with 1:39 to play. Senior quarterback Dano Graves completed 15 of 21 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns, two to former Folsom High School teammate Carson McMurtrey, and the Mustangs, playing without junior fullback Joe Protheroe due to an injury, were led on the ground by another junior fullback, Jared Mohamed, with 96 yards on 22 carries. Cal Poly did not score a touchdown by rushing for the first time since a 2012 FCS playoff game at Sam Houston State.

Utilizing a West Coast with Pistol offense and 4-3 defense, Portland State is averaging 28 points and 417 yards in total offense (237 rushing, 180 passing) while giving up 35 points and 446 yards on defense (230 rushing, 216 passing).

Running back Nate Tago has rushed for 476 yards and five touchdowns so far this season for the Vikings and quarterback Alex Kuresa has added 414 yards and four scores. Kuresa has completed 66 of 128 passes (52 percent) for 950 yards and five touchdowns with eight interceptions and his favorite targets are Maximo Espitia (17 catches), Paris Penn (15) and Josh Kraght (13). The Vikings have five players with 31 to 36 tackles, led by linebacker Anthony McNichols with 36 stops and two sacks.

Kuresa, a transfer from BYU and Snow Community College, earned Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year and honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades after completing 123 of 226 passes for 1,975 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions a year ago as a junior. He also was ranked second on the team in rushing with 158 carries for 755 yards and seven touchdowns as the Vikings turned a 3-9 campaign into 2014 into just the opposite in 2015.

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, outscoring the Toreros 28-3 in the final 31 minutes of the game to erase a 13-10 deficit.

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.

The Mustangs returned home to upset Nos. 8/9 Montana 42-41. Graves passed for three touchdowns and ran for another score to lead Cal Poly to its third straight win over Montana. He completed six of 10 passes for 157 yards, including scoring strikes to Kory Fox, Protheroe and Lewis, and ran 20 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. The scoring pass to Lewis with 4:29 to play, coupled with Casey Sublette's PAT kick, gave the Mustangs a 42-41 lead. Montana missed a 48-yard field goal attempt with 1:55 to play and, after getting the ball back with one second remaining, fumbled the sixth lateral after a short forward pass, ending the game.

Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 46-39, 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 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, 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 needed 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). Mazolewski, however, suffered a season-ending injury in the San Diego game.

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. 3 in rushing (330.6 yards per game) and also sport national rankings of No. 1 in passing efficiency, No. 2 in passing yards per completion, No. 6 in sacks allowed (3), No. 7 in third-down conversions and No. 10 in total offense. Cal Poly's defense also has put up some vastly improved numbers in its first five games, ranked No. 31 in rushing defense.

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.

Barnum (second season as head coach at Portland State, 11-7, Eastern Washington '87), was offensive coordinator for the Vikings from 2010-14. After turning a 3-9 squad into a 9-3 success story in 2015, Barnum was named FCS National Coach of the Year. The Vikings made their first appearance in the NCAA playoffs in 15 years, just their second ever, and hosted a Division I playoff game for the first time. PSU lost to Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley Conference, 29-17, in the opening round of the playoffs. Barnum also has coached at Cornell, Idaho State, American International and the U.S. Coast Guard and began his coaching career at Columbia River High School (Vancouver, Wash.) and Central Valley High School (Spokane, Wash.).

Portland State returned 46 lettermen, including 14 offensive and defensive starters, off last year's team. The Vikings, who fielded their first football team in 1947 and have been members of the Big Sky Conference since 1996, have compiled 30 winning seasons in 69 years and have made two FCS playoff appearances (2000 and 2015) and 10 NCAA postseason appearances.

Cal Poly and Portland State are meeting for the 23rd time in football this week. Last year the Vikings edged the Mustangs 38-35 in Alex G. Spanos Stadium as Jonathan Gonzales kicked a 27-yard field goal with 33 seconds left, capping a 52-yard, 10-play drive. Without quarterback Chris Brown due to injury, Cal Poly still compiled advantages of 420-154 in rushing yards, 536-386 in total offense, 27-20 in first downs and a 10-minute bulge in time of possession.

Cal Poly also won a non-conference game over Portland State 42-14 in San Luis Obispo in 2014. The series, which started in 1977 with Cal Poly winning the first six meetings, is now tied at 11-11. Walsh is 4-2 against Portland State, including a 1-1 mark while head coach at Sonoma State, while Barnum is 1-0 against Cal Poly.

Cal Poly's offensive leaders through five games are Protheroe, No. 17 in the FCS and No. 1 in the Big Sky with 557 rushing yards; Graves, No. 1 in the Big Sky in passing efficiency, completing 40 of 62 passes for 729 yards and nine touchdowns; and Lewis with 12 catches for 260 yards and three scores. Aaryn Bouzos has both Mustang interceptions and outside linebacker Chris Santini  leads the Mustangs with 39 tackles, 6.5 for lost yardage and 1.5 sacks.

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 58 of their last 74 home contests (78 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 94 of its last 154 contests (61 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 17 of its last 36 and 37 of 77 on the road while producing 11 winning seasons in the last 15 years.

Cal Poly returns home to host UC Davis in the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe on Mustang Family Weekend and Homecoming on Oct. 22, with kickoff inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium set for 6:05 p.m.

Photo on top of page of Nick Enriquez (67) and Kori Garcia (24) and of Jack Ferguson at left courtesy of Matt Brown | Matt Brown Photography