SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-2, 0-0 Big Sky Conference), whose fourth-quarter rallies against Colgate and San Jose State fell short and has fallen out of the top 25 in both the media and coaches polls, plays its final non-conference game of the 2017 football season Saturday afternoon with a matchup against No. 21 Northern Iowa (0-1, 0-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference) on the new AstroTurf artificial playing surface inside the UNI-Dome (16,234).
Kickoff for the eighth meeting between the two schools is set for 2 p.m. PDT. 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 1:30 p.m. ESPN3.com also will broadcast the game live as part of the Panther Sports Network. Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available at the top of the story as well as on the football schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
Cal Poly earned its fourth FCS playoff berth in 12 seasons last fall, finishing with a 7-5 mark and tied for fourth place with Southern Utah in the Big Sky. Northern Iowa posted a 5-6 mark a year ago and placed fourth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference at 4-4.
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 two weeks ago. 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.
Northern Iowa welcomed back 38 letter winners, including 17 starters (eight on offense, nine on defense), to Fall Camp in early August. Heading the list of veterans are senior defensive back Malcolm Washington and senior linebacker Jared Farley, both named to the 2017 MVFC Preseason first team. Farley led the Panthers in tackles a year ago with 80. Other top returning veterans include junior quarterback Eli Dunne (1,175 passing yards, seven touchdowns in five games a year ago), senior wide receiver Daurice Fountain (team-leading 33 receptions, 413 yards, five touchdowns in 2016), sophomore wide receiver Jalen Rima (two receiving touchdowns, two special teams touchdowns en route to MVFC Newcomer Team honors in 2016), defensive lineman Adam Reth (59 tackles, three sacks in 2015; missed 2016 season due to injury) and the senior duo of Malcolm Washington (four interceptions) and Elijah Campbell (three interceptions) in the secondary.
Last Saturday, Northern Iowa ventured to in-state rival Iowa State of the Football Bowl Subdivision, falling 42-24 before 61,500 in Jack Trice Stadium at Ames, Iowa. Dunne completed 23 of 38 passes for 259 yards and three touchdowns, but also was intercepted three times. Trevor Allen led the Panther ground attach with 87 yards on 12 carries and Isaiah Weston and Briley Moore each caught four passes. The Panthers accumulated 378 yards in total offense but were just three of 11 on third down.
Senior fullback Joe Protheroe headlines another strong group of ball carriers in Cal Poly's Spread Triple Option. 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, also a senior, also returns to back up Protheroe 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).
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 six of 17 passes for 85 yards against Colgate last week.
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 returns 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.
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, 50-44, 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 yards per game on the ground in 2015 and topped all 121 FCS teams during the regular season again last fall with a 343.5-yard average.
The Mustangs have struggled offensively in the early going, averaging just 203 yards on the ground and 264 yards in total offense. The Mustangs have enjoyed a seven-minute advantage in time of possession, but are just 12 of 37 on third-down plays (32 percent).
Defensive leaders for the Mustangs two games into the season are senior linebacker Mason Montgomery (23 tackles, 17 against San Jose State) and senior lineman Leroy Mealancon (10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles). Sophomore safety Kitu Humphrey has the lone Mustang interception so far.
The Mustangs are 0-2 for the third time in Walsh's nine seasons at the helm. Cal Poly lost its first two games in 2011 and 2014, but finished with winning records each year (6-5 and 7-5, respectively).
Northern Iowa defeated Cal Poly 34-20 in 2015 at San Luis Obispo and holds a 6-1 advantage in the series. Lone Mustang win over the Panthers was a 38-24 decision in the series opener in 1997, also in Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The Panthers have made the FCS playoffs 18 times, 12 under head coach Mark Farley, and have claimed 16 MVFC titles. UNI is 203-54-1 inside the UNI-Dome. Cal Poly All-American football player Stan Sheriff was head coach of the Panthers from 1960-82.
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.
The Mustangs have won 60 of their last 79 home contests (76 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 98 of its last 163 games (61 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 42 and 39 of 80 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, 2012 and 2016.
Cal Poly has the first of its two byes next week and will open Big Sky Conference play on Saturday, Sept. 23, against Northern Arizona. Kickoff inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium is set for 6:05 p.m. and the contest will be televised by Eleven Sports, available on DirecTV channel 623 and Charter SD channel 346 and HD channel 879.
Photo above of senior linebacker Mason Montgomery courtesy of Matt Brown | Matt Brown Photography