Cal Poly Attains Fourth FCS Playoff Bid; Finishes 7-5, Fourth in Big Sky

Cal Poly Attains Fourth FCS Playoff Bid; Finishes 7-5, Fourth in Big Sky


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — With a 6-2 record and national rankings of No. 14 by the media and No. 16 by the coaches, Cal Poly was poised to make a run for the Big Sky Conference championship and, perhaps, a deep run in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Then the calendar turned the page to November and the Mustangs faltered, losing three of four games to close out the year at 7-5. Cal Poly still qualified for the FCS playoffs, but fell 35-21 to San Diego in the opening round at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, 11 weeks after defeating the Toreros 38-16 during the regular season.

"Nobody wants to end the season the way we did," said eighth-year Mustang head coach Tim Walsh, "but everyone needs to see the complete body of work. If you do that, we competed hard and had the opportunity to be selected for the NCAA playoffs. As coaches and players, we reflect on that accomplishment and can be proud of that.

"Our seniors did a tremendous job on both sides of the ball," Walsh added. "Our offensive line of Matt Fisher, Billy Shipman and Nick Enriquez over the years -- you have to feel good about their accomplishments. Dano Graves, Kori Garcia and Carson McMurtrey are pretty good people, good players and played a lot of games for us.

"On defense, Josh Letuligasenoa, Kelly Shepard, Jason Patterson, Marcus Paige-Allen, Joseph Gigantino and Chris Santini had outstanding careers with us. Santini has a great work ethic, great character and played lights out this season."

Fisher, Shipman and Enriquez were part of an offensive line that surrendered just seven sacks in 12 games and helped Cal Poly to a No. 2 national ranking in team rushing. Garcia finished his career with 2,885 yards rushing, No. 6 all-time at Cal Poly, while Santini became the 16th Mustang to make over 100 tackles in a season. Graves passed for 1,485 yards, was No. 1 in the Big Sky in passing efficiency and also rushed for 686 yards, accounting for 26 touchdowns rushing and passing.

A total of 17 seniors will leave the program, leaving large holes to fill, but there is plenty of talent returning, chiefly among the running backs, wide receivers and defensive secondary.

Topping the list is fullback Joe Protheroe, who rushed for 1,334 yards, becoming the 20th Mustang in program history to exceed the 1,000-mark for a single season, and surpassed the 100-yard mark eight times, raising his career total to 13. Kyle Lewis (591 yards rushing, 22 catches for 375 yards, 10 total touchdowns) and Jared Mohamed (343 rushing yards) also return and J.J. Koski (18 catches) and Kory Fox (10) head the list of returning receivers.

On the other side of the ball, returnees include safeties B.J. Nard (59 tackles, four forced fumbles) and Kitu Humphrey (46 tackles), cornerbacks Jerek Rosales (47) and Kevin Griffin (36) and nickel back Aaryn Bouzos (26 tackles, two interceptions). The linebacking corps will be anchored by Anders Turner (32 tackles) and Jayson Lee (22) while the defensive line will be paced by Augustino Elisaia (18 tackles) and Jack Ferguson (27). Linebacker R.J. Mazolewski missed the final nine games due to injury but returns next fall as well.

On the recruiting trail, Walsh said defensive linemen will be the top emphasis. "We probably need to sign five or six guys out of high schools and junior colleges at that position," Walsh said. "That will be critical to our success, and we'll also have to find some high school guys for the defensive secondary (for 2018 and beyond)."

Khaleel Jenkins, used sparingly in his first two seasons at Cal Poly, backing up Chris Brown last year and Graves this fall, heads into the 2017 Spring Camp as the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart.

"Khaleel made extraordinary growth this year in practice," said Walsh, "and at 6-2 and 205 pounds, he's big for a quarterback and one of our best athletes. He needs game experience, no question about that, but our expectations are that he can run our offense. He is a good runner and an efficient thrower."

Cal Poly, ranked in the top 25 in the final nine weeks of the regular season, claimed the unofficial FCS title in California with wins over San Diego, UC Davis and Sacramento State and earned its fourth FCS playoff berth after finishing in a fourth-place tie with Southern Utah in the Big Sky.

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 in the season opener. 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 in a 38-31 triumph. Lewis ran for 66 yards and one touchdown and caught five passes, one for another score, while 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, 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.

The Mustangs outscored Sacramento State 59-47 with 674 yards in total offense, 527 on the ground, led by Protheroe's 168 yards and 146 from Garcia. For the fourth time in the last five games, Graves passed for three touchdowns. Cal Poly won for the second straight week when trailing at halftime. That streak ended with Eastern Washington's 42-21 triumph as Gage Gubrud passed for 357 yards and four touchdowns and Cooper Kupp threw two scoring passes and caught another among his 11 receptions. Protheroe notched his sixth 100-yard game of the season and 11th of his Mustang career, rushing for 116 yards on 23 carries, while Graves gained 121 yards on the ground and scored twice on runs of 9 and 1 yards. Protheroe had the other Mustang score on a one-yard dive.

The Mustangs had their longest losing streak of the year, two games, following a 22-15 loss at Weber State. Cal Poly was held under 200 yards rushing for the first time since the 2015 season finale, netting 190 yards on the ground. Protheroe finished with 65 yards on 18 carries while Garcia added 57 yards on 14 trips and DJ Peluso 50 yards on six carries. Santini made 16 tackles to lead Cal Poly defensively.

The Mustangs closed out the regular season and clinched a playoff berth with a 55-48 triumph over Northern Colorado. Graves completed 14 of 15 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 147 yards and another score as the Mustangs amassed 634 yards in total offense, surpassing the 600-yard mark for the fourth time this season. Cal Poly converted 14 of 18 third-down plays, punted just twice, had the ball for almost 15 minutes more than the Bears and gave Walsh his 50th win as Mustang head coach.

The season came to a close with Saturday's 35-21 loss to San Diego as the Toreros held Cal Poly to its lowest totals of the season for first downs (12), rushing yards (155), total offense (195) and time of possession (26:04). The game was played on a sloppy field as rain fell for seven hours, stopping one hour prior to kickoff.

"With the early wins over Montana and South Dakota State, those were keynote wins for the 2016 season," said Walsh. "Losing three of the last four, all to teams selected to compete in the playoffs, was extremely disappointing, to be sure, and we as a staff have to talk about the fatigue factor and have to re-evaluate some things. In all three games, we were either tied or trailing by no more than seven points in the third quarter. We have to find a way to win those games next time."

The Mustangs, No. 1 in team rushing the last three years, are currently ranked No. 2 in rushing (343.5 yards per game), 15.0 yards behind The Citadel, which hosts Wofford in the second round of the FCS playoffs this weekend. The Mustangs also sport national rankings of No. 1 in passing efficiency, No. 3 in third-down conversions, No. 5 in first downs, No. 6 in passing yards per completion, No. 6 in sacks allowed (7), No. 7 in time of possession and No. 12 in total offense (471.3). Cal Poly's defense also has put up some vastly improved numbers in the regular season, ranked No. 33 in rushing defense (134.6) and No. 77 in total defense (405.9).

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 60 of their last 78 home contests (77 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 98 of its last 161 contests (61 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 40 and 39 of 79 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 16 years.

The Mustangs claimed 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, 2012 and 2016.

Photo above of Joe Protheroe courtesy of Rob Ruben | Crossview Studios