POCATELLO, Idaho – The Cal Poly football team landed Friday afternoon in the Pocatello Valley between the Samaria Mountains on the west side and the Bannock Range on the east side with one goal in mind: Victory No. 1.
To accomplish the feat, the Mustangs must defeat an Idaho State grid squad that already owns a victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision team, has six sets of brothers and is celebrating Homecoming on Saturday.
Cal Poly (0-4) and Idaho State (2-2) square off at 1:35 p.m. Pacific inside 12,000-seat Holt Arena, which opened in 1970 as the Minidome and was built at a cost of just $2.8 million. It is the oldest enclosed stadium on a college campus in the United States and the second-oldest overall. Only the Houston Astrodome, completed in 1965, predates it.
The Bengals defeated Nevada 30-28 two weeks ago, their first win over an FBS school since 2000 when Idaho State edged Utah State 27-24. The win over the Wolf Pack in Reno snapped a 27-game Bengal losing streak to FBS members.
Idaho State, however, lost last week at Northern Colorado, a 43-42 decision in the Big Sky opener for both schools that was decided on a 37-yard field goal by Collin Root as time expired.
Idaho State had wiped out a 40-24 deficit with three touchdowns, but misfired on all three extra-point attempts, giving the Bears one final chance to win the game. Northern Colorado drove 67 yards in eight plays to set up the game-winning field goal.
Under first-year head coach Rob Phenicie, Idaho State opened its 2017 season with a 37-6 win over Western Oregon, then fell 51-13 at Utah State.
Cal Poly has dropped its first four games of a season for the first time since 2002 when the Mustangs lost five in a row to open the campaign. This year the losses are to Colgate 20-14, San Jose State 34-13, Northern Iowa 45-38 and Northern Arizona 28-10.
In each of the first three games, Cal Poly was within seven points or fewer with eight minutes or less to go in regulation. Last week against Northern Arizona, however, the visiting Lumberjacks opened up a 28-3 lead with four minutes to go in the third quarter and never looked back.
The loss to the Lumberjacks marked the first time Cal Poly had lost a conference home opener in 10 years. The Mustangs were 5-0 in Big Sky home openers as well as winning their last four Great West home openers.
There are some good news for the Cal Poly football team, however.
• The Mustangs are 13-7 in their series against Idaho State, winning six of the last seven meetings. Cal Poly earned a 58-26 triumph over the Bengals two years ago at Alex G. Spanos Stadium as Kori Garcia rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns and Chris Brown ran for two scores and passed for two more.
• Despite the 0-4 mark, Cal Poly still leads the Big Sky in team rushing, averaging 222.2 yards per game. Senior fullback Jared Mohamed leads the way with 356 yards in four games, No. 4 in the Big Sky.
• The Mustangs are No. 1 in the nation in passing yards per completion, averaging 21.17 yards per catch. That average was helped by J.J. Koski's 60-yard touchdown catch and run last week against Northern Arizona.
• Cal Poly senior outside linebacker Mason Montgomery leads the Big Sky with 46 tackles in four games, including 17 against San Jose State and 14 more at Northern Iowa.
• The Mustang defense has notched eight sacks this season, including three last week against Northern Arizona. That's more than half of last year's total of 15. Cal Poly's offensive line has given up just two sacks, best in the conference.
Idaho State is one of four institutions with two alums who are currently serving as head coaches in the National Football League. The former Bengals are Dirk Koetter at Tampa Bay and Marvin Lewis at Cincinnati. The other three schools are Pacific (Pete Carroll at Seattle, Hue Jackson at Cleveland), Miami of Ohio (Sean McVay at Los Angeles Rams, John Harbaugh at Baltimore) and William and Mary (Mike Tomlin at Pittsburgh, Sean McDermott at Buffalo).
The Bengals have accumulated 724 rushing yards and 1,012 passing yards in four games this season.
The ground game is paced by James Madison with 344 yards and two touchdowns and Ty Flanagan with 234 yards and three scores. Both have played three games. Tanner Gueller, part of the group of six sets of brothers playing football at Idaho State, has completed 71 of 125 passes (57 percent) for 1,012 yards and nine touchdowns. His favorite targets are Michael Dean (15 catches, 275 yards, three TDs), Hagen Graves (14-215-1), also part of the brothers group, and Flanagan (10-25-0).
Cal Poly is 5-4 all-time in Pocatello, but has not won indoors since 2012 when the Mustangs defeated North Dakota and Northern Arizona. Since those two victories, Cal Poly is 0-3 indoors. The Mustangs are 5-8 on artificial surfaces over the past two-plus seasons.
Cal Poly also plays on the road next week, visiting Southern Utah for a 5 p.m. (PDT) Big Sky game.
Photo above of Jack Ferguson courtesy of Matt Brown | Matt Brown Photography