CEDAR CITY, Utah – Cal Poly's football team, still seeking its first win of the 2017 season, held its walk-through in 8,500-seat Eccles Coliseum on Friday before heading into the mountains.
The Mustangs are staying overnight at a ski resort in Brian Head, Utah, located about 30 miles northeast of Cedar City at an elevation of 9,800 feet. Much of Brian Head, located adjacent to Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument, was evacuated last summer due to a wildfire that burned for more than a month and consumed nearly 72,000 acres.
But the Grand Lodge at Brian Head, where the Mustangs will hold their team meals and team meetings Friday night and Saturday morning, and most other buildings in the ski resort community survived. It will be a chilly Friday night in Brian Head with temperatures in the upper 20s, but in Cedar City for Saturday's 6 p.m. MDT kickoff (5 p.m. PDT), it is expected to be 72 degrees, falling into the upper 50s by the end of the game.
Cal Poly has lost to Colgate, San Jose State, Northern Iowa, Northern Arizona and Idaho State. Three of the setbacks were by seven points or fewer and, despite the 0-5 start, the Mustangs still lead the Big Sky in team rushing, averaging 252 yards a contest. That was helped by a 374-yard performance last week at Idaho State.
Southern Utah, coming off a bye week, brings a 2-2 mark into Saturday's game. The Thunderbirds opened their season with a 77-21 loss at Oregon, then posted wins over Stephen F. Austin and Northern Iowa before opening Big Sky play with a 54-27 setback at Sacramento State.
Coached by second-year head coach Demario Warren, Southern Utah is eighth in the Big Sky in rushing (149 yards per game) and No. 6 in passing (279 yards). The Thunderbirds are spearheaded offensively by senior quarterback Patrick Tyler, who missed the game at Sacramento State but has completed 62 of 108 passes (57 percent) for 816 yards and six touchdowns in three contests.
Cal Poly junior quarterback Khaleel Jenkins suffered a recent knee injury and his status for Saturday's game was day to day on Thursday, according to head coach Tim Walsh.
Jenkins is coming off a 202-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance in the loss to Idaho State, a game in which he also passed for a pair of scores. Jenkins is averaging 195 yards of total offense per game.
If Jenkins does not play Saturday, the starting nod likely will go to redshirt freshman Jake Jeffrey, who completed 274 of 394 passes for 4,194 yards and 50 touchdowns as a senior at Folsom High School in 2015, leading the Bulldogs to a 14-1 overall mark, perfect 6-0 record for another Sierra Foothill League title and the CIF-Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship. Jeffrey also averaged 5.8 yards per carry, netting 974 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
Mustang senior defensive tackle Jack Ferguson, who injured both his elbow and ankle last week at Idaho State, was feeling much better Friday morning, but is doubtful for the Southern Utah game.
Cal Poly has enjoyed recent success against the Thunderbirds, winning the last 14 games played between the two schools in San Luis Obispo and posting a 5-7 mark in Cedar City.
The last meeting was two years ago, also in Cedar City, and was all Thunderbirds as Cal Poly lost five fumbles. Three of them were returned for touchdowns by Southern Utah, including two by outside linebacker Mike Needham, who is a senior this fall out of nearby St. George, Utah.
Cal Poly compiled 555 yards of total offense, thanks in large part to four 100-yard rushers, and held a 13-minute advantage in time of possession in that game, but six turnovers proved to be the Mustangs' undoing. Nevertheless, Cal Poly still holds a 19-8 advantage in the series dating back to the first game in 1986.
It will be Homecoming for Southern Utah. Last year the Thunderbirds toppled Portland State 45-31 in its Homecoming game, drawing a record 10,306 fans.
Said Warren about facing the Mustangs for the first time in his coaching career as a head coach, "Cal Poly has a winning tradition as a football program. They play hard, they play physical and they play tough. It's going to be a fight for 60 minutes.
"We have to bring our hard hats and be ready to go to work because these guys aren't going to lay down for anybody," Warren added. "This is going to be a tough challenge for our team. We need to be disciplined on defense and, offensively, we have to overcome some of our shortcomings from the last couple of weeks."
Those shortcomings include throwing three interceptions in each of the Thunderbirds' last two games and surrendering 586 yards of total offense to Sacramento State.
"We've got to protect the football on offense and, defensively, we've got to play one-eleventh football for 60 minutes," Warren said. "It's got to be disciplined, we have to have our eyes right and we've got to make sure we tackle. If we do those things, we should have some success on Saturday."
Through two weeks of play in the Big Sky, three teams sport perfect 2-0 marks – Weber State (4-1 overall), Eastern Washington (3-2) and Northern Arizona (2-2). Weber State has a bye this week while Eastern Washington visits UC Davis. Northern Arizona hosts Illinois State for a non-conference game.
In addition to this season, Cal Poly also lost five straight games in 1967, 1999, 2000 and 2002. The 1965 team lost its final six games and the 1964 squad went 0-10.
Saturday's game in Cedar City will be broadcast live by ESPN Radio 1280 with Chris Sylvester providing the play-by-play and Alex Clupper serving as an analyst. Pregame show starts at 4:30 p.m. PDT. The game also will be streamed live on Pluto TV and WatchBig Sky.com. Links for audio and video streams along with live stats are available on the football schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.