Cal Poly Hosts Northern Colorado Saturday, Playoff Berth May Be at Stake

Cal Poly Hosts Northern Colorado Saturday, Playoff Berth May Be at Stake


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (6-4, 4-3 Big Sky), ranked in the top 25 for the eighth straight week and, despite back-to-back losses to Eastern Washington and Weber State, still has aspirations of earning a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth, plays its final game of the 2016 regular season Saturday night, hosting Northern Colorado (6-4, 4-3 Big Sky) in the Hats Off to Heroes Game inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (11,075).

The matchup of fourth-place teams with identical overall and Big Sky marks kicks off at 6:05 p.m. PST and the game will be broadcast live by ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Ramses Barden (analyst). Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at

Cal Poly, which claimed the mythical FCS championship in California with wins over San Diego, UC Davis and Sacramento State, will try to snap its first two-game losing skid of the year on Senior Night as 18 seniors will be honored in a pregame ceremony.

Weber State handed the Mustangs their second consecutive defeat and snapped a four-game losing streak against Cal Poly with a 22-15 triumph last Saturday in Ogden, Utah, taking over sole possession of third place in the Big Sky and keeping its FCS playoff hopes alive. The Wildcats scored the first 15 points of the game and held off Cal Poly with an interception with seven minutes to play and a pass breakup on fourth down with 38 seconds left.

Northern Colorado, under sixth-year head coach Earnest Collins Jr., beat Montana for the first time in 40 years, 28-25, last weekend in Greeley, Colo., as Darius Graham rushed for 130 yards and one touchdown and quarterback Kyle Sloter was six of 12 passing for 100 yards and two scores. Theron Verna's five-yard touchdown catch from Sloter with 3:35 to play gave the Bears the lead. Linebacker Kyle Newsom notched 17 tackles, three for lost yardage, his second straight 17-tackle game. Montana lost despite a 400-241 advantage in total offense, 25-12 in first downs, 95 plays to just 47 for the Bears and over 18 minutes in time of possession.

Northern Colorado has won three of its last four games, defeating Sacramento State, Portland State and Montana, after a 3-3 start. The Bears fell 34-21 to UC Davis on Oct. 15 before turning things around, posting the school's second straight winning season for the first time since 2002 and 2003.

Cal Poly moved into the top 25 in both the STATS media and FCS coaches polls following its 42-41 Big Sky-opening win over Montana on Sept. 24. The Mustangs were ranked as high as No. 14 by the media and 16th by the coaches after its win over Sacramento State but has slipped to No. 21 by the media and 23rd by the coaches after back-to-back losses to Eastern Washington and Weber State.

Utilizing a spread offensive formation and 4-3 defense, Northern Colorado is averaging 33 points and 410 yards in total offense (167 rushing, 243 passing) while giving up 34 points and 468 yards on defense (219 rushing, 249 passing).

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, outscoring the Toreros 28-3 in the final 31 minutes of the game to erase a 13-10 deficit.

At South Dakota State, 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.

The Mustangs returned home to upset No. 6 Montana 42-41. Graves passed for three touchdowns and ran for another score to lead Cal Poly to its third straight win over the Grizzlies. He completed six of 10 passes for 157 yards and his strike 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.

Cal Poly's three-game winning streak was snapped by North Dakota as the Fighting Hawks rallied from a 14-10 third quarter deficit and intercepted a pass in the end zone in the final two minutes. Graves completed his first seven pass attempts of the game and finished 15 of 21 for 219 yards and three touchdowns. Lewis caught four passes for 33 yards. Cal Poly's ground game was held to just 202 yards by North Dakota's defense, the best in the Big Sky against the rush, and the Mustangs did not score a touchdown on the ground for the first time in four years.

In a 55-35 win at Portland State, Cal Poly never punted, Lewis, Kori Garcia and Protheroe all surpassed the 100-yard mark on the ground and the Mustangs amassed 658 yards in total offense and committed just one penalty. Portland State led 14-13 two minutes into the second quarter before Cal Poly scored three unanswered touchdowns to take control of the game. A 21-16 Battle for the Golden Horseshoe triumph over UC Davis was not clinched until Lewis broke off a 91-yard run with 2:54 to play and, two minutes later, Jake Smeltzer recovered an Aggie onside kick. Graves ran for two touchdowns and Lewis finished with 141 yards on eight carries while sophomore Mekai Sheffie, making his first collegiate start, notched 13 tackles.

The Mustangs outscored Sacramento State 59-47 with 674 yards in total offense, 527 on the ground, led by Protheroe's 168 yards and 146 from Garcia. For the fourth time in the last five games, Graves passed for three touchdowns. Cal Poly won for the second straight week when trailing at halftime.

That streak ended with Eastern Washington's 42-21 triumph as Gage Gubrud passed for 357 yards and four touchdowns and Cooper Kupp threw two scoring passes and caught another among his 11 receptions. Protheroe notched his fifth 100-yard game of the season and 10th of his Mustang career, rushing for 116 yards on 23 carries, while quarterback Dano Graves gained 121 yards on the ground and scored twice on runs of 9 and 1 yards. Protheroe had the other Mustang score on a one-yard dive.

Coached by Tim Walsh (eighth season, 49-41, 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.

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. 2 in rushing (352.4 yards per game) and also sport national rankings of No. 1 in passing efficiency, No. 4 in passing yards per completion, No. 6 in sacks allowed (6), No. 5 in third-down conversions (52 percent) and No. 11 in total offense (482.7). Cal Poly's defense also has put up some vastly improved numbers in its first 10 games, ranked No. 30 in rushing defense (131.2) and No. 57 in total defense (383.4).

Collins (sixth season, 21-45, Northern Colorado '95) welcomed back 38 lettermen, including 19 offensive and defensive starters, off last year's team which went 6-5 overall and finished tied for eighth in the Big Sky Conference at 3-5.

Northern Colorado joined the Big Sky in 2006 and its best finish prior to the 2016 campaign was a fifth-place tie in 2012. The Bears moved to Division I in 2004 as a member of the Great West Conference and have yet to earn an FCS playoff berth, but earned back-to-back NCAA Division II national championships in 1996 and 1997.

For the season, Trae Riek has rushed for 691 yards and three touchdowns in eight games while Sloter has completed 172 of 276 passes (62.3 percent) for 2,218 yards and 23 scores with 10 interceptions. Eight Bear receivers have 10 or more catches, led by Stephen Miller with 47 receptions for 835 yards and three touchdowns. Hakeem Deggs has a 20.4 kickoff return average, the Bears have just two interceptions all year and Newsom leads all Northern Colorado defenders with 103 tackles (8.0 for lost yardage and 3.5 sacks).

Among famous UNC alumni are Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson and ESPN reporter Ed Werder.

Collins was 8-12 as head coach at Alcorn State in 2009 and 2010. He is Northern Colorado's single-season school record-holder for punt return yards and was a student assistant coach in 1995 and secondary/special teams coach from 2000-02. Collins also was an assistant coach at Northwest Missouri State (1996-99), Kansas (2003-06), Central Florida (2007) and Alcorn State (2008).

Cal Poly and Northern Colorado are meeting for the 12th time in football this weekend and the Mustangs own a 9-2 advantage in the series, winning the only five meetings between the two schools since Cal Poly moved to Division I in 1994. The series started in 1958 and the two teams last played in 2013 in Greeley, a 42-14 Mustang victory as Akaninyene Umoh scored three times and Alex Hubbard notched Cal Poly's first touchdown by kickoff return in 11 years, a 94-yarder. Quarterback Chris Brown rushed for 101 yards and completed 10 of 16 passes for 129 yards, three for touchdowns.

Cal Poly won the 2012 meeting in San Luis Obispo, 56-28, scoring 14 points in each quarter. The Mustangs also scored 14 points in each quarter against the Bears in 2007, a 56-21 Cal Poly victory in Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Northern Colorado's last win against the Mustangs was a 14-13 decision in 1982 in San Luis Obispo. Walsh is 4-0 against Northern Colorado, including twice while he was head coach at Portland State, while Collins is 0-2 against Cal Poly.

Walsh, 4-3 in regular-season finales at Cal Poly, faced another difficult schedule this fall. The Mustangs' 11 opponents are 61-49 for the season, led by Eastern Washington at 9-1, San Diego at 8-1, North Dakota at 9-2 and South Dakota State at 7-3.

Cal Poly's offensive leaders through 10 games are Protheroe, No. 4 in the FCS and No. 1 in the Big Sky averaging 122.4 rushing yards a game; Garcia (746 yards, 6.7 per carry, four scores); Lewis (581 yards, 10.8 average per carry, six scores); Graves, No. 1 in the Big Sky in passing efficiency, completing 77 of 124 passes (62 percent) for 1,254 yards and 15 touchdowns along with 537 rushing yards and eight scores; and Lewis with a team-leading 19 catches for 339 yards and three TDs.

Aaryn Bouzos has two interceptions and outside linebacker Chris Santini (pictured above) leads the Mustangs with 85 tackles (10.5 for lost yardage and 2.5 sacks after recording a career-high 16 stops against Weber State.

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.

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.

The Mustangs have won 59 of their last 76 home contests (78 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 97 of its last 159 contests (61 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 40 and 39 of 79 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 16 years.

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 and 2012.

First-round pairings for the FCS playoffs will be revealed Sunday, Nov. 20, at 8 a.m. PST on ESPNU.