SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-4, 0-1 Big Sky), which dropped its Big Sky opener against Northern Arizona last week, continues conference play Saturday afternoon against Idaho State (2-2, 0-1 Big Sky) inside Holt Arena (12,000) at Pocatello, Idaho.
Kickoff for the 21st meeting between the two schools is set for 1:35 p.m. PDT. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Alex Clupper (analyst). Pregame show starts at 1 p.m. Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available above as well as on the football schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
Cal Poly earned its fourth FCS playoff berth in 12 seasons last fall, finishing 7-5 and tied for fourth with Southern Utah in the Big Sky. Northern Arizona, which lost quarterback Case Cookus to injury in the fourth game a year ago, finished 5-6 overall and tied for sixth in the Big Sky at 4-4.
Colgate shut out Cal Poly for three quarters, the first team to do that since Southern Utah in 2010, and held off the Mustangs in the final minutes for a 20-14 win two weeks ago. An incomplete pass on fourth down at the Colgate 22 with 37 seconds remaining halted Cal Poly's late rally. San Jose State overcame an early 6-0 deficit and built a 20-6 lead before Cal Poly closed the gap to seven. It was still a seven-point margin with eight minutes left before the Spartans scored twice in a nine-second span to pull away for the 34-13 triumph. Against Northern Iowa, Cal Poly scored two touchdowns in the final 2:05 of regulation to force overtime, but two illegal procedure penalties thwarted the Mustangs' drive after the Panthers scored. Northern Arizona led all the way in the Big Sky opener for both schools, pulling away with three consecutive touchdowns after Cal Poly closed the gap to 7-3 with a field goal.
Idaho State welcomed back 53 letter winners, including 14 starters (seven on offense, seven on defense), to Fall Camp in early August. Heading the list of veterans are quarterback Tanner Gueller, linebacker Mario Jenkins and wide receiver Mitch Gueller, younger brother of the signal caller. Tanner Gueller completed 235 of 404 passes for 2,328 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore last year. Mitch Gueller caught 36 passes for 509 yards and three touchdowns while Jenkins was No. 1 on the team in tackles with 93 (33 solo) in 10 games with three sacks, two interceptions and four pass breakups.
Idaho State opened its 2017 season with a 37-6 win over Western Oregon, followed by a 51-13 to Utah State. The Bengals bounced back with a 30-28 upset of Nevada, but dropped their Big Sky opener to Northern Colorado 43-42 as Collin Root kicked a 37-yard field goal as time expired. Idaho State rallied from a 40-24 deficit with three touchdowns, but misfired on all three PATs (one pass, two kicks), giving the host Bears one last chance. Northern Colorado drove 67 yards in eight plays to set up the game-winning field goal.
For the season, James Madison leads all Bengal rushers with 344 yards and two touchdowns. Ty Flanagan has added 234 yards and three scores. Gueller has connected on 71 of 125 passes (56.8 percent) for 1,012 yards and nine touchdowns. Michael Dean (15 catches, 275 yards, three touchdowns), Hagen Graves (14-215-1) and Flanagan (10-25-0) all have double-digit receptions. Jenkins once again leads Idaho State on defense with 40 tackles (14 solo) in four games, including 5.0 for lost yardage, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Joe Martin has 39 tackles (17 solo) and Adkin Aguirre 35 (20 solo).
Senior fullback Joe Protheroe headlined another strong group of ball carriers in Cal Poly's Spread Triple Option, but likely is sidelined the rest of the 2017 season with an injury. In becoming Cal Poly's 20th 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, Protheroe amassed 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground and is No. 8 on the career rushing chart with 2,461 yards. Jared Mohamed, also a senior, also returns after collecting 343 yards in 2016. The group of slot backs features all-purpose player Kyle Lewis (591 rushing yards and six TDs, team-leading 22 catches for 375 yards and four scores in 2016).
Junior quarterback Khaleel Jenkins started one game in 2015 against Portland State and appeared in four games last season with one incomplete pass and one carry for two yards. He completed nine of 16 passes for 238 yards and four touchdowns against Northern Iowa, the most passing yards by a Mustang quarterback since Tony Smith threw for 407 yards and six touchdowns against South Dakota in 2009.
Two of last year's five starting offensive linemen are back in junior left guard Harry Whitson and center Joey Kuperman -- the other three probable starters played all 12 games a year ago -- and the Mustangs' wide receiving corps is led by sophomores J.J. Koski (18 catches in 2016) and Jake Smeltzer (five). Protheroe and Kuperman landed on the 2017 All-Big Sky Preseason Team.
On defense, Cal Poly returns all four starters in the secondary, but three of the four linebackers and one of the linemen need to be replaced. The good news is that Charlie Davis and R.J. Mazolewski, both of whom played in the first three games of 2016 before suffering season-ending injuries, are back and healthy. Anders Turner and Jayson Lee, who combined for five starts a year ago, return as well, and Mason Montgomery and Darren Adjei each played at least 11 games last fall.
The secondary features safeties B.J. Nard, Kitu Humphrey, Carter Nichols and Aaron Johnson and cornerbacks Dominic Frasch, Jerek Rosales, Kevin Griffin and Kam Dennis. All played at least 11 games in 2016. Nickel back Aaryn Bouzos, who also played all 12 games with two interceptions, returns as well.
The kicking game has both of last year's kickers back -- Casey Sublette and Alex Vega. Sublette handled most of the chores in 2016, averaging 36.8 yards over 29 punts and making 54 of 56 PATs and all six field goal attempts. Vega, who punted 10 times for a 40.7 average, is best known for his 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in a 20-19 win over Montana in the 2015 opener.
Coached by Tim Walsh (ninth season, 50-46, UC Riverside '77), Cal Poly began its 98th season of football in 2016 by winning six of its first eight games before losing three of its final four contests, including a 35-21 setback at the hands of San Diego in the opening round of the FCS playoffs, almost three months after a 38-16 triumph in Week Two.
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, broke school and Big Sky records by averaging 387.3 rushing yards per game in 2015 and topped all 121 FCS teams during the regular season again last fall with a 343.5-yard average.
The Mustangs struggled offensively in the first two weeks of the 2017 campaign, averaging just 203 yards on the ground and 264 yards in total offense, before exploding for 543 yards at Northern Iowa. Despite the 0-4 record, the Mustangs enjoy a more than six-minute advantage in time of possession and lead the Big Sky in rushing (222.2 yards per game), but are just 26 of 70 on third-down plays (37 percent) and have lost eight fumbles in four games.
In the absence of Protheroe, Jared Mohamed has produced 356 yards, including a pair of 100-yard games. Jenkins has completed 24 of 58 passes (41 percent) for 508 yards and six touchdowns. Koski is Jenkins' top target with 11 catches for 202 yards and three scores. Lewis has seven receptions for 225 yards and three touchdowns as well.
Defensive leaders for the Mustangs four games into the season are senior linebacker Mason Montgomery (46 tackles, 17 against San Jose State and 14 more at Northern Iowa), senior linebacker R.J. Mazolewski (31 tackles, 4.0 for lost yardage and 1.5 sacks) and senior cornerback B.J. Nard (30 tackles). Sophomore safety Kitu Humphrey and junior cornerback Dominic Frasch have the only Mustang interceptions.
The Mustangs are 0-4 for the first time since the 2002 squad lost its first five games. The loss to Northern Arizona was Cal Poly's first in a conference home opener since 2007 when the Mustangs fell 31-28 to North Dakota State on Nov. 10. Cal Poly was 5-0 in Big Sky home openers after winning its last four in the Great West.
Cal Poly enjoys a 13-7 advantage in its series against Idaho State dating back to 1937. The two teams are meeting for just the fourth time in the last nine years. The Mustangs won five straight meetings, outscoring the Bengals 237-82, before a 30-28 loss in Pocatello, Idaho in 2014. Last year at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, the Mustangs earned a 58-26 victory as Kori Garcia rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns and senior quarterback Chris Brown ran for two scores and passed for two more. Cal Poly rushed for 499 yards and compiled 605 yards in total offense. Tim Walsh is 9-7 against Idaho State (2-1 as head coach at Cal Poly) while first-year Bengal head coach Rob Phenicie is 0-0 against Cal Poly. The Mustangs are 8-3 at home against the Bengals and 5-4 in Pocatello.
Phenicie is in his third year with the Idaho State football program and first as the head coach. He spent five years at UNLV, two as the offensive coordinator, three as the quarterbacks coach and two as the tight ends coach, worked as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Montana from 2003-09 and was the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Wyoming. Phenicie coached the quarterbacks and wide receivers at CSUN from 1997-98 and at L.A. Valley College from 1992-96.
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 fourth in the 13-team Big Sky. North Dakota and Eastern Washington shared the conference title in 2016 with 8-0 marks. North Dakota was ranked No. 1 by both the media and coaches to repeat this season, followed by Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona.
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.
The Mustangs have won 60 of their last 80 home contests (75 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 98 of its last 165 games (60 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 43 and 39 of 81 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 16 years.
Cal Poly remains on the road next week, visiting Southern Utah on Oct. 7.