SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Coming off its first victory of the 2017 season, Cal Poly (1-8, 1-5 Big Sky) continues Big Sky Conference play Saturday night with its final home game and Hats Off to Heroes contest against in-state rival Sacramento State (5-4, 4-2 Big Sky) inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (11,075).
Kickoff is set for 6:05 p.m. PST and it will be Senior Night with 20 seniors to be honored in a pregame ceremony. 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 5:30 p.m. Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available 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. UC Davis is still seeking its first FCS playoff berth after elevating its program from Division II to Division I in 2007.
The Mustangs have struggled in 2017, losing their first eight games for the first time since the 1964 squad went 0-10. The losing streak came to an end last week with a 35-28 Homecoming victory over Portland State.
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 in the season opener. 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. The loss to the Lumberjacks was Cal Poly's first in a conference home opener since 2007 when the Mustangs fell 31-28 to North Dakota State. Cal Poly was 5-0 in Big Sky home openers after winning its last four in the Great West.
The Mustangs erased an early 10-0 deficit at Idaho State with 17 second-quarter points but let a 14-point third-quarter lead slip away as the Bengals outscored Cal Poly 21-3 over the final 18 minutes for a 38-34 triumph. Cal Poly quarterback Khaleel Jenkins rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns and also passed for two more scores. Three weeks ago, Cal Poly dropped a 20-14 decision at Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds scored 17 points in the first 18 minutes of the game and held on. Trailing 20-7, Cal Poly rallied with a five-yard touchdown run by Broc Mortensen with 4:46 to play and got the ball back with 2:51 to go, but after picking up a pair of first downs and moving the ball into Southern Utah territory, the Mustang drive stalled. Senior fullback Jared Mohamed set new career highs with 142 yards on 30 carries.
Three weeks ago, Weber State held Cal Poly to 106 rushing yards, the lowest total since 2009 when North Dakota allowed just 62 yards on the ground, in a 17-3 victory. Last time Cal Poly was held without a touchdown was in 2000 when Montana won 53-3. UC Davis scored 21 points in the first six minutes, 10 seconds, and held on for a 31-28 victory two weeks ago. Jared Mohamed earned his fifth career 100-yard game with career highs for rushes (35) and yards (143). Trailing by three points with 14 minutes to play, Cal Poly couldn't secure the go-ahead score in three final possessions. In the win over Portland State, Mohamed and Chuby Dunu each scored two touchdowns, Mohamed rushed for a career-high 194 yards and Mark Reza intercepted a Viking pass with 48 seconds to play to seal the verdict. The Mustangs rushed for 400 yards to offset Portland State's 433 yards passing.
Under fourth-year head coach Jody Sears, Sacramento State welcomed back 47 letter winners, including 20 starters (nine on offense, 11 on defense), to Fall Camp in early August. Heading the list of veterans are wide receiver Isiah Hennie (49 catches, 594 yards, five TDs, 10.7 punt return average, 18.3 kickoff return average), safety Manny Scott-Anderson (107 tackles, four pass breakups, two fumble recoveries) and defensive lineman Ben Sorenson (42 tackles, 11.0 tackles for lost yardage, 5.5 sacks).
Sacramento State dropped non-conference games to Idaho and Weber State, defeated Incarnate Word and has won Big Sky games against Southern Utah, Idaho State, North Dakota and Northern Colorado while falling to Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona. The Hornets, 2-9 a year ago, are 5-4 overall and 4-2 in Big Sky contests, just one game behind tri-leaders Southern Utah, Weber State and Northern Arizona, all 5-1.
The Hornets are No. No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision in third-down conversions defense, holding opponents to 23.3 percent efficiency (29 of 125). They also are No. 3 in sacks with 37 in nine games and No. 9 in turnover margin at plus 11. Sacramento State's defense has collected 13 interceptions, compared to just four a year ago, and have allowed only two 100-yard rushers this season (14 last year. The two are Trae Riek of Northern Colorado with 114 yards last week and Austin Duckworth of Idaho with 142 yards in the season opener.
Isiah Hennie, brother of Cal Poly's Kyle Lewis, is believed to be the first Hornet in program history to return both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns in a career. He has one kickoff return for a score and two via punt, including a 90-yarder against Cal Poly a year ago, and also has 132 career receptions.
The Hornets, 4-1 at home but 1-3 on the road, won their third straight home game last week with a 50-21 victory over Northern Colorado. Elijah Dotson rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns while Roman Ale competed 13 of 21 passes for 137 yards and two more scores. Immanuel Anderson returned an interception 21 yards for a score and Devon Medeiros kicked two field goals. Sacramento State has won three consecutive home games (Southern Utah, Idaho State, Northern Colorado) for the first time since 2000.
Sacramento State returned just one rusher from the 2016 team and he was moved to safety in Fall Camp, leaving no experience in the backfield. Kevin Thomson has rushed for 422 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per carry, and Joseph Ajeigbe, the transfer from Duke, has added 412 yards and four touchdowns. Isaiah Gable, BJ Perkinson and Elijah Dotson all have over 300 yards as well as the Hornets average 217 yards per game on the ground.
Sacramento State has used four quarterbacks this season. Roman Ale has started the last three games, completing 31 of 56 passes (55 percent) for 491 yards and five scores. Top Hornet receivers are Hennie with 35 catches and Jaelin Ratliff with 20.
Defensive leaders are cornerback Dre Terrell with five interceptions, six pass breakups and 50 tackles and strong safety Mister Harriel with 72 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions. Defensive end Ben Sorensen has notched 10.5 tackles for lost yardage, including eight sacks while the other defensive end, George Orbinna has recorded 11.5 tackles for lost yardage, including 8.5 sacks.
Senior fullback Joe Protheroe headlined another strong group of ball carriers in Cal Poly's Spread Triple Option, but 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, another 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).
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, but is lost for the season as well with an injury.
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 returned 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.
Starters Jack Ferguson and Augustino Elisaia anchor the defensive front as tackles and the end spot in the 3-4 formation features a battle between L.J. Mealancon and Miles Williams, both of whom played all 12 games in 2016.
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, 51-50, 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.
In the absence of Protheroe, senior fullback Jared Mohamed has produced 940 yards, including five 100-yard games. Redshirt freshman Jake Jeffrey has replaced Jenkins as the Mustangs' signal caller and has completed 30 of 69 passes for 471 yards and two scores. Both Mohamed and Jeffrey scored their first touchdowns of 2017 at UC Davis two weeks ago. Sophomore J.J. Koski is the top receiver with 18 catches for 349 yards and three scores. Senior Kyle Lewis has 16 receptions for 417 yards and five TDs along with 213 rushing yards and one score. Redshirt freshman Chuby Dunu scored his first two career touchdowns last week against Portland State and has 217 yards this season.
Defensive leaders for the Mustangs nine games into the season are senior linebacker Mason Montgomery (82 tackles, 17 against San Jose State, 14 at Northern Iowa and 10 at Southern Utah) and senior linebacker R.J. Mazolewski (61 tackles). Sophomore safety Kitu Humphrey and sophomore cornerback Mark Reza both have a pair of interceptions this season for Cal Poly, which has logged 54 tackles for lost yardage, including 20 sacks, five more than all of last season.
Cal Poly and Sacramento State are meeting for the 37th time in football this weekend and the Mustangs lead the series 20-16 after last year's 59-47 win inside Hornet Stadium. Dano Graves passed for three touchdowns while Joe Protheroe and Kori Garcia each surpassed the 100-yard mark on the ground as the Mustangs overcame a 21-17 halftime deficit for the win.
The series began in 1967 with a 17-7 Mustang victory in Sacramento. Cal Poly is 11-8 against Sacramento State at home and 9-8 against the Hornets in Sacramento. Tim Walsh is 17-2 against Sacramento State, including a 12-1 mark while he was head coach at Portland State, while Jody Sears is 0-5 against Cal Poly.
Sears (16-27 at Sacramento State (fourth season), 120-46 overall (sixth season), Washington State '91) was head coach at Weber State in both 2012 and 2013, compiling a 4-22 mark, and has served as defensive coordinator at Washington State (2008-11), Eastern Washington (2000-07) and St. Ambrose (1997). He also was an assistant at Army (1998-99) and Iowa State (1994-96). Sears was a two-year receiver at Washington State before earning his bachelor's degree in 1991 and obtained his master's degree at Iowa State in 1996.
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. Sacramento State was picked to finish 12th.
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 61 of their last 82 home contests (74 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 99 of its last 170 games (58 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 46 and 39 of 84 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 16 years.
Next week Cal Poly wraps up the 2017 season at Northern Colorado. Kickoff in Greeley, Colo., is set for 10:35 a.m. PST.