Cal Poly to Host Eastern Washington in Crucial Big Sky Game Saturday

Cal Poly to Host Eastern Washington in Crucial Big Sky Game Saturday

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SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (6-2, 4-1 Big Sky), ranked in the top 25 for the sixth straight week and tied for third place with Weber State in the Big Sky Conference behind two unbeaten teams, hosts one of those undefeated squads Saturday night, hosting No. 3 Eastern Washington (7-1, 5-0 Big Sky) with first place on the line.

The Mustangs and Eagles kick off at 6:05 p.m. PDT inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (11,075) and the game will be broadcast live by ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Ramses Barden (analyst). Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.

Cal Poly, which had already beaten San Diego and UC Davis this year, wrapped up the mythical FCS championship in California last week with a wild 59-47 triumph at Sacramento State. The Mustangs turned the game around by dominating the third quarter, outscoring the Hornets 21-0 with a 196-34 advantage in total yards and 10-1 in first downs. Quarterback Dano Graves threw three touchdown passes while Joe Protheroe (168) and Kori Garcia (146) both surpassed the 100-yard mark on the ground and combined for three touchdowns. Seven different Mustangs scored as Cal Poly produced its second three-game winning streak of the year with 674 total yards (527 on the ground), both season highs.

Eastern Washington, under ninth-year head coach Beau Baldwin, brings a six-game winning streak to San Luis Obispo following last week's 35-16 win over Montana. Gage Gubrud passed for 327 yards and four scores while Cooper Kupp, one of the nation's top receivers, grabbed eight passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns.

Only loss on the Eagles' docket this year was to five-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State, 50-44 in overtime on Sept. 10. Eastern Washington opened with a 45-42 triumph at Washington State and, following the loss to the Bison, has reeled off wins over Northern Iowa, Northern Arizona, UC Davis, Northern Colorado, Montana State and Montana. The Eagles are among the FCS leaders in third-down conversions (50.9 percent), completion percentage (.696), first downs (219), fewest fumbles lost (2), kickoff return average (25.65), passing offense (437.5 yards per game), scoring (45.1) and total offense (555.3).

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 seven 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, climbed to No. 14 by the media and No. 17 by the coaches after beating UC Davis and currently is ranked No. 14 by the media and 16th by the coaches.

Utilizing a multiple-set offense and 4-2-5 defense, Eastern Washington is averaging 45.1 points and 555 yards in total offense (118 rushing, 437 passing) while giving up 31 points and 457 yards on defense (191 rushing, 266 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 a 55-35 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. A 21-16 Battle for the Golden Horseshoe triumph over UC Davis was not clinched until Lewis broke off a 91-yard run with 2:54 to play and, two minutes later, Jake Smeltzer recovered an Aggie onside kick. Graves ran for two touchdowns and Lewis finished with 141 yards on eight carries while sophomore Mekai Sheffie, making his first collegiate start, notched 13 tackles.

Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 49-39, 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. 1 in rushing (370.3 yards per game) and also sport national rankings of No. 1 in passing efficiency, No. 1 in passing yards per completion, No. 4 in sacks allowed (4), No. 3 in third-down conversions and No. 4 in total offense. Cal Poly's defense also has put up some vastly improved numbers in its first seven games, ranked No. 38 in rushing defense and No. 49 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.

Baldwin (ninth season, 80-31, Central Washington '96) welcomed back 54 lettermen, including 14 offensive and defensive starters, off last year's team which went 6-5 overall and finished tied for fourth in the Big Sky Conference at 5-3. The 2014 squad went 11-3 overall, finished first in the Big Sky Conference at 7-1 and split two games in the FCS playoffs. The Eagles, members of the Big Sky Conference since 1987, have earned 11 FCS playoff berths -- winning the 2010 national title and reaching the semifinals in 1997 and 2012 -- and have won or shared eight Big Sky titles.

The Eagles' offensive leaders include Gubrud, the team's top rusher (387 yards, four TDs) and passer (233 of 336 (69.3 percent), 3,198 yards, 31 touchdowns, eight interceptions). His favorite target is Kupp with 67 receptions for 1,006 yards and 11 scores. Kendrick Bourne adds 54 catches for 815 yards and three TDs while Shaq Hill has 44 receptions for 694 yards and 10 scores. Kupp also averages 14.0 yards per punt return. Defensive leaders include safeties Zach Bruce and Mitch Fettig with three interceptions each. Bruce also leads with 72 tackles while middle linebacker Miquiyah Zamora has 65 stops. End Samson Ebukam and nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli both have 3.5 sacks.

Baldwin was 10-3 as head coach at Central Washington in 2007. He is in his 23rd season as a coach, including 10 at Central Washington (one as head coach in 2007) and 13 at Eastern Washington (nine as head coach from 2008-present). Baldwin played quarterback for four seasons at Central Washington.

Cal Poly and Eastern Washington will be playing each other in football for the ninth time Saturday. The Eagles have a 6-2 series advantage after defeating the Mustangs 35-22 in 2013 at Alex G. Spanos Stadium and earning a 42-41 overtime triumph a year ago in Cheney, Wash. In that 2015 contest, the Eagles scored 22 points to overcome a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit and scored on the first play of overtime. Cal Poly also scored in the extra period, but fumbled the ball out of bounds on a pitch while trying for the two-point PAT.

Eastern Washington edged Cal Poly 53-51 in triple overtime in 2011, also in San Luis Obispo. The two teams played back-to-back in 1994-95 and 2004-05, with the home team winning each time. Tim Walsh is 7-12 against Eastern Washington -- 0-1 while coaching at Sonoma State, 7-7 while at Portland State and 0-4 at Cal Poly -- while Beau Baldwin is 4-0 against Cal Poly.

Cal Poly's offensive leaders through eight games are Protheroe, No. 4 in the FCS and No. 1 in the Big Sky averaging 131.6 rushing yards a game; Garcia (673 yards, 7.6 per carry, four scores); Lewis (561 yards, 11.0 average per carry, six scores); Graves, No. 1 in the Big Sky in passing efficiency, completing 64 of 97 passes for 1,086 yards and 15 touchdowns along with 408 rushing yards and six scores; and Lewis with a team-leading 18 catches for 338 yards and three TDs. Aaryn Bouzos has two interceptions and outside linebacker Chris Santini  leads the Mustangs with 58 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 97 of its last 157 contests (62 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 39 and 39 of 79 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 16 years.

Cal Poly visits Weber State for another Big Sky contest next Saturday at 11 a.m. PDT in Ogden, Utah.