SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (1-9, 1-6 Big Sky), which closed out the home portion of its 2017 football schedule with a 1-4 mark following a 49-14 loss to in-state rival Sacramento State, wraps up the campaign Saturday morning with a Big Sky Conference contest at Northern Colorado (2-7, 1-6 Big Sky) in a matchup of 11th-place teams at Nottingham Field (8,533). The winner could move up to ninth place while the loser finishes 12th.
Kickoff in Greeley, Colo., is set for 10:35 a.m. PST and 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 10 a.m. The game will be televised on Comcast Entertainment Television (CET) Sports (not available in California). 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. Northern Colorado is still seeking its first FCS playoff berth after completing elevation of its program from Division II to Division I in 2006.
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 two weeks ago with a 35-28 Homecoming victory over Portland State, but Cal Poly slipped to 1-9 with the loss to Sacramento 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.
Four 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 three 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. Sacramento State held Cal Poly scoreless for three quarters, scored the first 49 points of the game and coasted to the victory over the Mustangs last week.
Mohamed surpassed the 1,000-yard mark with 125 yards on 30 carries and Cal Poly had advantages of 22-11 in first downs and 38:45 to 21:15 in time of possession, but the Mustangs finished their home schedule 1-4, the most home losses since 2000.
Under seventh-year head coach Earnest Collins Jr., Northern Colorado welcomed back 33 letter winners, including 12 starters (seven on offense, five on defense), off last year's 6-5 squad to Fall Camp in early August. Heading the list of veterans are defensive back Keifer Morris (38 tackles, two pass breakups in 2016), quarterback Jacob Knipp (1,969 yards passing, 13 touchdowns in 2015; suffered season-ending shoulder injury in second game of 2016 season), running back Trae Riek (691 yards, 5.8 average per carry, three TDs in 2016) and wide receiver Hakeem Deggs (34 catches, 449 yards, 10 touchdowns in 2016).
Northern Colorado jumped to a 2-1 start with wins over College of Idaho and Idaho State but has lost its last six games. The losing streak reached six with a 44-14 loss at Montana last week as the Bears threw five interceptions, lost two fumbles and had a punt blocked. Anthony Davis rushed for 102 yards on 11 carries, including a 64-yard romp which set up a Bears touchdown, and Luke Nelson notched 20 tackles and a pass breakup.
The Bears are No. 17 in the Football Championship Subdivision in passing offense, averaging 279 yards per game, but Knipp re-injured his shoulder midway through the campaign and Keaton Mott and Conor Regan have shared quarterback duties since. Mott has completed 11 of 26 passes (42 percent) for 152 yards while Regan has connected on 73 of 155 passes (47 percent) for 1,003 yards and six scores.
Northern Colorado is last in the 13-team Big Sky in total defense, surrendering 497 yards per game, and is 13th in rushing defense, giving up 258 yards a contest. Stone Kane has a team-leading 83 tackles, Morris tops the Bears with 12.0 tackles for lost yardage, including 8.0 sacks, and Isaiah Swopes has three of the Bears' 10 interceptions.
Top rushers for Northern Colorado is Riek with 523 yards and six touchdowns. Davis is next with 242 yards and three scores. The Bears' top receivers are Alex Wesley with 52 catches for 923 yards and five touchdowns, Deggs with 37 receptions for 364 yards and one score and Frank Stephens with 24 catches for 418 yards and three touchdowns.
Northern Colorado is 75-50 at Nottingham Field, which opened in 1995, and its largest crowd was in 2005 when the Bears drew 9,145 for their game against Cal Poly. Northern Colorado claimed NCAA Division II national titles in 1996 and 1997 under head coach Joe Glenn and qualified for the Division II playoffs three more times before moving up to Division I. The Bears, who were members of the Great West Conference in 2004 and 2005 before joining the Big Sky in 2006, posted back-to-back 6-5 marks in 2015 and 2016, their first winning campaigns since 2003. Perhaps the best-known former Bear is wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who went on to play for the San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Reed Doughty was a Washington Redskin from 2006-14 and Ben Dreith and Pat Haggerty served as NFL officials while Ed Werder was an ESPN reporter.
Senior fullback Joe Protheroe headlined another strong group of ball carriers in Cal Poly's Spread Triple Option, but is sidelined the rest of 2017 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, 51-51, 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 1,065 yards, including six 100-yard games. He became the 21st Mustang to break the 1,000-yard mark in single-season rushing last week. Redshirt freshman Jake Jeffrey has replaced Jenkins as the Mustangs' signal caller and has completed 43 of 89 passes (48 percent) for 619 yards and two scores. Both Mohamed and Jeffrey scored their first touchdowns of 2017 at UC Davis three weeks ago. Sophomore J.J. Koski is the top receiver with 24 catches for 416 yards and three scores, including a career-high six catches last week. Senior Kyle Lewis has 21 receptions for 477 yards and five TDs along with 213 rushing yards and one score. Redshirt freshman Chuby Dunu scored his first two career touchdowns two weeks ago against Portland State and has 217 yards this season.
Defensive leaders for the Mustangs 10 games into the season are senior linebacker Mason Montgomery (86 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 60 tackles for lost yardage, including 20 sacks, five more than all of last season.
Cal Poly and Northern Colorado are meeting for the 13th time in football this weekend and the Mustangs own a 10-2 advantage in the series, winning the only six meetings between the two schools since Cal Poly moved to Division I in 1994. The series started in 1958 and the two teams closed the 2016 regular season in Alex G. Spanos Stadium with Cal Poly outscoring the Bears 55-48. Quarterback Dano Graves passed for 191 yards and rushed for 147 more, throwing two touchdown passes and running for another, as the Mustangs clinched an FCS playoff berth with the win. Graves completed 14 of 15 passes, including scoring strikes to J.J. Koski and Kyle Lewis, and averaged 8.2 yards per carry, calling his number 18 times and establishing a new career high with his 147 yards. He clinched the victory with a 42-yard run with two minutes to play in the game.
Cal Poly also won the last meeting in Greeley, 42-14 in 2013, as fullback Akaninyene Umoh scored three times and Alex Hubbard notched Cal Poly's only touchdown by kickoff return in the last 15 years, a 94-yarder. 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 Spanos Stadium. Northern Colorado's last win against the Mustangs was a 14-13 decision in 1982 in San Luis Obispo.
Walsh is 5-0 against Northern Colorado, including twice while he was head coach at Portland State, while Collins is 0-3 against Cal Poly. Walsh also is 5-3 in season finales at Cal Poly.
Utilizing a spread offensive formation and 4-3 defense, Northern Colorado is averaging 26 points and 376 yards in total offense (98 rushing, 278 passing) while giving up 38 points and 497 yards on defense (257 rushing, 240 passing).
Collins (seventh season at Northern Colorado, 23-53, Northern Colorado '96) 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, 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 83 home contests (73 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 99 of its last 171 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.