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Cal Poly Continues Big Sky Football Slate on Saturday at North Dakota

Cal Poly Continues Big Sky Football Slate on Saturday at North Dakota


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (3-1, 1-0 Big Sky), which has won three straight games since a season-opening three-point overtime loss at FBS member Nevada and is in the Top 25 for the first time this year, continues Big Sky Conference play Saturday afternoon by visiting North Dakota (2-2, 1-0 Big Sky) for its only 2016 game indoors at the Alerus Center (12,283).

The Mustangs and Fighting Hawks kick off at 11:05 a.m. PDT and the game will be broadcast live on the Midco Sports Network with Alex Heinert providing the play-by-play and Ryan Kasowski serving as the analyst. The game also will be broadcast by ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Eric Burdick (analyst). Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at

North Dakota, under third-year head coach Bubba Schweigert, is coming off a 17-15 victory at Montana State last week as running back Brady Oliveira rushed for 171 yards and two touchdowns, including a 60-yard romp with 2:27 to go that proved to be the game-winner. North Dakota's defense forced five turnovers while the offense had the ball for nearly eight minutes more than the Bobcats.

North Dakota, nationally ranked in early season polls, fell out of the Top 25 after opening the season with losses to Stony Brook and Bowling Green. The Fighting Hawks have bounced back with wins over South Dakota and Montana State. All four games have been decided by four points or less and North Dakota has scored 99 points in those four games while giving up 99 points as well.

Cal Poly, which moved within two spots of reaching the top 25 in both the STATS media and FCS coaches polls following its win over then-No. 9-ranked South Dakota State two weeks ago, cracked the Top 25 for the first time this season with its 42-41 Big Sky-opening win over Montana last week. The Mustangs are ranked No. 16 by the media and 18th by the coaches.

Dano Graves passed for three touchdowns and ran for another score to lead Cal Poly to its third straight win over Montana. Graves completed six of 10 passes for 157 yards, including scoring strikes to Kory Fox, Joe Protheroe and Kyle Lewis, and ran 20 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. The scoring pass 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. Brady Gustafson completed 47 of 59 passes for 418 yards and Jerry Louie-McGee caught 21 passes for 155 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Utilizing a multiple-set offense and 3-4 defense, North Dakota is averaging 25 points and 326 yards in total offense (168 rushing, 158 passing) while giving up 25 points and 354 yards on defense (114 rushing, 240 passing).

Running back John Santiago has rushed for 367 yards and three touchdowns so far this season for the Fighting Hawks and Oliveira has added 271 yards and two scores. Quarterback Keaton Studsrud has completed 58 of 108 passes for 631 yards and three scores and his favorite targets are Travis Toivonen with 18 catches and Luke Stanley with 17. North Dakota has scored three touchdowns by interception return, two by cornerback Deion Harris.

As a freshman a year ago, Santiago rushed for 1,459 yards and 16 touchdowns en route to STATS and Associated Press second-team All-America honors. He was named Co-Big Sky Freshman of the Year and was a unanimous first team All-Big Sky selection. Santiago shared the FCS lead with nine 100-yard rushing games in regular-season play and was the only running back in FCS football to rush for more than 100 yards in each of his conference games. He was held to 57 yards on 19 carries by Montana State last week.

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. The Mustangs bounced back with a 38-16 triumph over San Diego in their home opener three weeks ago, outscoring the Toreros 28-3 in the final 31 minutes of the game to erase a 13-10 deficit.

At South Dakota State two weeks ago, 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. Kyle Lewis ran for 66 yards and one touchdown and caught five passes, one for another score, while junior safety Aaryn Bouzos sealed the win with an interception just inside the two-minute mark.

Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 46-38, UC Riverside '77), Cal Poly began its 98th season of football with 48 returning lettermen, including 13 who started at least three games a year ago, seven on offense and six on defense.

Quarterback Chris Brown, who rushed and passed for over 3,000 yards each in his Mustang career, is gone. Graves, who utilized his redshirt year last fall after playing in 11 games as a sophomore and junior, rushing for 536 yards and passing for 499 more, takes over the signal-calling duties. The Folsom High School graduate started five games as a sophomore in 2013 and was Brown's backup as a junior in 2014.

Cal Poly's strength offensively is in its group of running backs as well as the offensive line. Joining Graves in the offensive backfield are Protheroe (779 yards, six touchdowns, first-team All-Big Sky) and Jared Mohamed (463 yards, three touchdowns) along with slot backs Kori Garcia (1,819 yards, 12 touchdowns and 27 catches in last two seasons combined, All-Big Sky second team in 2014, All-Big Sky third team in 2015) and DJ Peluso (278 yards rushing, eight catches in 2015). Another slot back, Lewis, scored four times at Southern Utah, was one of four 100-yard rushers in that game for Cal Poly, and finished the year with 336 yards and six scores.

The offensive line needed to replace center Stephen Sippel and right tackle Weston Walker, both members of the 2016 National Football Foundation's Hampshire Honor Society. Joey Kuperman (11 starts at right guard in 2015, All-Big Sky honorable mention) moves to center this fall. Matt Fisher (11 starts in 2015) returns at left tackle while Nick Enriquez (22 starts over last two seasons) moves from left guard to right tackle.

Two linebackers and three defensive backs graduated, but Walsh is confident with their replacements on the defensive side of the ball. In cornerbacks Jerek Rosales and Kevin Griffin, Walsh has a pair of 6-1 corners for the first time in his eight seasons at Cal Poly. B.J. Nard, who intercepted three passes at Montana in 2015, returns at right safety, joined by redshirt freshman Kitu Humphrey or sophomore Aaron Johnson at left safety. Aaryn Bouzos, who played all 11 games a year ago, backs up the safeties as well.

Josh Letuligasenoa, who sat out the 2015 campaign, returns for his final season and after being a defensive end for two years, becomes a rush linebacker in the 3-4 defensive scheme this fall. Joseph Gigantino III (75 tackles, 9.5 TFLs) moves from Sam to Mike, and filling the outside linebacker positions will be R.J. Mazolewski (71 tackles, 7.5 TFLs) and Chris Santini (nine tackles, All-Big Sky honorable mention on special teams).

The defensive front is anchored by tackles Augustino Elisaia (11 starts at nose tackle, 15 tackles in 2015) and Marcus Paige-Allen (65 tackles over last two seasons combined, All-Big Sky third team in 2014, All-Big Sky honorable mention in 2015) along with end Kelly Shepard (41 tackles, 11 starts in 2015).

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 and broke school and Big Sky records by averaging 387.3 yards per game on the ground last fall.

The 2016 Mustangs are currently ranked No. 1 in rushing (362.8 yards per game) and also sport national rankings of No. 1 in red zone offense (100 percent), No. 2 in passing yards per completion (20.40), No. 13 in turnovers lost (3), No. 15 in time of possession (33:32) and No. 9 in total offense (490.3). Cal Poly's defense also has put up some vastly improved numbers in its first four games, ranked No. 47 in total defense (359.0) and No. 23 in rushing defense (109.3).

Cal Poly opened the 2015 campaign with a 20-19 win at Montana as Alex Vega kicked a 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining. The following week, the Mustangs battled Arizona State to a 21-21 draw in the first 52 minutes before the Sun Devils scored two late touchdowns for the 35-21 triumph.

But the Mustangs let a 21-13 third-quarter lead get away against Portland State and were within two points, 33-31, midway through the third quarter at Southern Utah. In those two games, Cal Poly lost nine fumbles. The top three teams in the Big Sky last fall were the champion Thunderbirds, runner-up Vikings and third-place Montana.

Schweigert (third season at North Dakota (seventh season overall), 14-13 (35-33), Jamestown '85), guided North Dakota to a 7-4 mark in 2015, including a tie for fourth place in the Big Sky at 5-3. North Dakota returned 38 lettermen, including 18 offensive and defensive starters, off last year's team.

Schweigert was defensive coordinator at North Dakota from 1997-2003 and also has served as secondary coach (1990-96) and graduate assistant (1989-90) at North Dakota. He compiled a 22-21 mark as head coach for four seasons at Minnesota Duluth and also was defensive coordinator at Southern Illinois from 2008-13.

North Dakota, which claims among its most famous alumni former L.A. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, was NCAA Division II national champion in 2001.

Cal Poly and North Dakota are meeting for only the seventh time in football this weekend. In the 2015 season finale at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, the Fighting Hawks sprinted to a 35-0 lead early in the third quarter and never looked back en route to a 45-21 triumph, holding the Mustangs to just 153 rushing yards, the lowest total since the 2011 season opener at San Diego State. John Santiago rushed 27 times for 117 yards and three touchdowns while Keaton Studsrud completed 17 of 20 passes for 255 yards and two scores.

First meeting between the Mustangs and North Dakota was in the 1972 Camellia Bowl at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, won by North Dakota 38-21.

Tim Walsh is 3-2 against North Dakota while Bubba Schweigert is 1-0 against Cal Poly.

Cal Poly's offensive leaders through four games are Protheroe, No. 1 in the FCS and Big Sky with 557 rushing yards; Graves, No. 1 in the Big Sky in passing efficiency, completing 25 of 41 passes for 510 yards and six touchdowns; and Lewis with eight catches for 227 yards and three scores. Aaryn Bouzos has both Mustang interceptions and rush linebacker Josh Letuligasenoa leads the Mustangs with 30 tackles, 4.5 for lost yardage.

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 58 of their last 74 home contests (78 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 94 of its last 153 contests (61 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 17 of its last 35 and 37 of 76 on the road while producing 11 winning seasons in the last 15 years.

Cal Poly has a bye next week, returning to Big Sky Conference play Oct. 15 by visiting Portland State. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. PDT.

Photos of J.J. Koski (top of page) and Kory Fox courtesy of Matt Brown | Matt Brown Photography