Cal Poly Continues Big Sky Play at Sacramento State on Saturday Night

Cal Poly Continues Big Sky Play at Sacramento State on Saturday Night


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (5-2, 3-1 Big Sky), ranked in the top 25 for the fifth straight week and alone in fourth place in the Big Sky Conference behind three unbeaten teams, seeks another mythical California FCS championship Saturday night, visiting Sacramento State (1-7, 1-4 Big Sky) in the state capital.

The Mustangs and Hornets kick off at 6:05 p.m. PDT inside Hornet Stadium (21,195) 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

Cal Poly has already beaten San Diego and UC Davis this year and plays the only other FCS team in the Golden State this week. The Mustangs, 38-16 winners over the Toreros in the second week of the season, erased a 9-7 halftime deficit against the Aggies with two second-half touchdowns, a 14-yard run by quarterback Dano Graves and a 91-yard romp by Kyle Lewis, then held on to beat UC Davis 21-16 last weekend inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.

Cal Poly's prolific Triple Option was held largely in check by an Aggie defense that allowed just 21 points (Cal Poly averaged 37.3 points a game going into the contest), 320 rushing yards (352.5-yard average) and 364 yards in total offense (506.7 yards a game) to the Mustangs.

Sacramento State, under third-year head coach Jody Sears, snapped a season-opening four-game losing streak (losses to Western Oregon, Fresno State, Weber State and Idaho State) with a 41-38 win at home against Montana State on Oct. 1, but since then has lost to North Dakota, Montana and Northern Colorado.

Last week against the Bears, the Hornets let a 10-7 halftime lead slip away as Northern Colorado scored two touchdowns and a pair of field goals in the second half. The Hornets committed just one penalty and had the ball for 33 minutes but converted just six of 22 third-down plays. Jordan Robinson rushed for 128 yards on 21 carries, scoring twice, while quarterbacks Nate Ketteringham and Nolan Merker combined to complete nine of 32 passes for 108 yards. Blake Cuzzupoli punted 10 times.

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. 6-ranked South Dakota State six 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 a 31-24 loss at North Dakota, moved back into the top 20 at Nos. 19 (media) and 20 (coaches) after the bye week, inched up two more spots in both polls following a 55-35 triumph at Portland State and currently is ranked No. 14 by the media and No. 17 by the coaches.

Lewis finished with his second 100-yard game of the year and third of his Mustang career, rushing for 141 yards on just eight carries in the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe win over UC Davis while junior fullback Joe Protheroe added 95 yards on 27 trips. Graves scored a pair of touchdowns and netter 45 yards on 17 carries while also completing four of seven passes for 44 yards. Cal Poly held the ball for 36 minutes, 6 seconds, converted 11 of 19 third-down plays and evened the all-time series against the Aggies at 20-20-2.

Utilizing a multiple-set offense and 4-3 defense, Sacramento State is averaging 18.5 points and 359 yards in total offense (145 rushing, 214 passing) while giving up 37 points and 500 yards on defense (243.5 rushing, 256.5 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, 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 No. 6 Montana 42-41. Graves passed for three touchdowns and ran for another score to lead Cal Poly to its third straight win over the Grizzlies. He completed six of 10 passes for 157 yards and his strike 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.

Cal Poly's three-game winning streak was snapped by North Dakota as the Fighting Hawks rallied from a 14-10 third quarter deficit and intercepted a pass in the end zone in the final two minutes. Graves completed his first seven pass attempts of the game and finished 15 of 21 for 219 yards and three touchdowns. Lewis caught four passes for 33 yards. Cal Poly's ground game was held to just 202 yards by North Dakota's defense, the best in the Big Sky against the rush, and the Mustangs did not score a touchdown on the ground for the first time in four years.

In its win at Portland State, Cal Poly never punted, Lewis, Kori Garcia and Protheroe all surpassed the 100-yard mark on the ground and the Mustangs amassed 658 yards in total offense and committed just one penalty. Portland State led 14-13 two minutes into the second quarter before Cal Poly scored three unanswered touchdowns to take control of the game.

Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 48-39, 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 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 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. 2 in rushing (347.9 yards per game) and also sport national rankings of No. 1 in passing efficiency, No. 5 in passing yards per completion, No. 3 in sacks allowed (3), No. 3 in third-down conversions and No. 7 in total offense. Cal Poly's defense also has put up some vastly improved numbers in its first seven games, ranked No. 20 in rushing defense and No. 41 in total 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.

Sears (10-21 at Sacramento State (third season), 14-40 overall (fifth season), Washington State '91) welcomed back 46 lettermen, including 19 offensive and defensive starters, off last year's team which went 2-9 overall and finished tied for 12th in the Big Sky Conference at 1-7.

The Hornets' offensive leaders include Robinson (462 rushing yards, 5.1 yards per carry, five TDs), Ketteringham (130 of 257 for 1,471 yards and nine TDs with nine interceptions), Isiah Hennie with 38 catches and Robinson with 30. Linebackers Manoah Pearson and Tyler Meteer along with free safety Scott Anderson all have 60-plus tackles. Eight of Meteer's stops are for lost yardage.

Sears was head coach at Weber State in both 2012 and 2013, compiling a 4-22 mark, and has served as defensive coordinator at Washington State (2008-11), Eastern Washington (2000-07) and St. Ambrose (1997). He also was an assistant at Army (1998-99) and Iowa State (1994-96). Sears was a two-year receiver at Washington State before earning his bachelor's degree in 1991 and obtained his master's degree at Iowa State in 1996.

Cal Poly and Sacramento State are meeting for the 36th time in football this weekend and the Mustangs lead the series 19-16 after last year's 36-14 win. Five Mustangs scored touchdowns and Cal Poly jumped to a 26-0 lead and never looked back, holding the Hornets to just 35 rushing yards. Two years ago the Mustangs won 56-27, outscoring the Hornets 42-3 after trailing 17-7 with 9:39 to go in the second quarter.

The series began in 1967 with a 17-7 Mustang victory in Sacramento. Cal Poly is 11-8 against Sacramento State at home and 8-8 against the Hornets in Sacramento. Tim Walsh is 16-2 against Sacramento State, including a 12-1 mark while he was head coach at Portland State, while Jody Sears is 0-4 against Cal Poly.

Cal Poly's offensive leaders through seven games are Protheroe, No. 4 in the FCS and No. 1 in the Big Sky averaging 125.5 rushing yards a game; Garcia (527 yards, 6.8 per carry, three scores); Lewis (483 yards, 10.5 average per carry, five scores); Graves, No. 1 in the Big Sky in passing efficiency, completing 56 of 82 passes for 939 yards and 12 touchdowns along with 390 rushing yards and six scores; Lewis with team-leading 16 catches for 295 yards and three TDs. Aaryn Bouzos has two interceptions and outside linebacker Chris Santini  leads the Mustangs with 52 tackles, 7.5 for lost yardage and 2.5 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 59 of their last 75 home contests (79 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 96 of its last 156 contests (62 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 19 of its last 38 and 38 of 78 on the road while producing 11 winning seasons in the last 15 years.

Cal Poly returns home to host No. 3 Eastern Washington for another Big Sky contest next Saturday at 6:05 p.m.