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Cal Poly to Open Big Sky Play Saturday at Eastern Washington

Cal Poly to Open Big Sky Play Saturday at Eastern Washington
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (1-2, 0-0 Big Sky), which closed out the non-conference portion of its 2018 football schedule with a victory over Ivy League member Brown last week, opens Big Sky Conference play Saturday afternoon at No. 6 Eastern Washington (2-1, 0-0 Big Sky) inside Roos Field (cap.: 8,600).
Kickoff is set for 1:05 p.m. PDT and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN Radio 1280 AM and 101.7 FM with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Alex Clupper (analyst). Pregame show starts at 12:30 p.m. The game also will be televised on SWX in the Spokane area. Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available at the top of the page as well as on the football schedule page at
After capturing its fourth FCS playoff berth in 2016 and finishing 7-5 overall and tied for fourth place in the Big Sky Conference, Cal Poly slipped to 1-10 and 12th place in 2017. As many as eight starters missed games due to injuries, including quarterback Khaleel Jenkins and fullback Joe Protheroe. Four of the six team captains suffered season-ending injuries.
Jenkins, Protheroe, offensive linemen Harry Whitson, Zach Shallcross and Sam Ogee and defensive backs Dominic Frasch, Aaron Johnson and Carter Nichols all return this fall, bolstering hopes for a turnaround from the team that tied the school record for losses in a season.
The Mustangs opened the season with a 49-3 setback at No. 1-ranked and six-time NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision champion North Dakota State and fell 24-17 to No. 10 Weber State two weeks ago in a non-conference matchup of Big Sky Conference rivals. Last week, Cal Poly rushed for 420 yards, paced by senior Joe Protheroe's career highs of 43 carries, 228 yards and three touchdowns, in a 44-15 victory over Brown. Quarterback Khaleel Jenkins and backup signal caller Kyle Reid also ran for touchdowns and sophomore slot back Broc Mortensen returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score, just the second touchdown by kickoff return for the Mustangs in 15-plus seasons.

Eastern Washington Notes

Coming off a 7-4 campaign in 2017, including a 6-2 mark for a third-place tie in the Big Sky, Eastern Washington posted victories over Central Washington and Northern Arizona (non-conference) before dropping a 59-24 decision at Washington State. Trailing 28-3 with two minutes to go in the second quarter, the Eagles twice pulled to within 11 points before the Cougars outscored Eastern Washington 31-7 the rest of the way, including the final 24 points of the game.
Eagle quarterback Gage Gubrud completed 14 of 36 passes for 231 yards and three scores, but was intercepted three times. Eastern Washington also lost a fumble while the Cougars had no turnovers. The four Eagle turnovers resulted in 24 Washington State points and the Cougars also produced a 100-yard kickoff return and scoring drives of 99 and 98 yards.
A total of 17 Eagle starters return — nine on offense and eight on defense — led by Gubrud, who has completed 705 of 1,097 passes (64 percent) for 9,458 yards and 86 touchdowns in 30 games with the Eagles while also rushing for 958 yards and 11 scores. 
Other top returnees include senior offensive lineman Spencer Blackburn (two-time second-team All-Big Sky), junior running back Antoine Custer (second-team All-Big Sky in 2017, 776 yards rushing, 10 TDs), junior wide receiver Dré Sonte Dorton (second-team All-Big Sky as a kick returner with 26.7 average in 2017), senior defensive back Mitch Fettig (248 career tackles, five interceptions, 12 pass breakups, third-team All-Big Sky in 2017), sophomore defensive back Anfernee Gurley (third-team All-Big Sky in 2017 as a freshman), senior defensive back Josh Lewis (102 career tackles, five interceptions, 17 pass breakups), junior offensive lineman Tristen Taylor (25 starts in two seasons) and senior wide receiver Nsimba Webster (91 career receptions, 1,288 yards, 11 TDs, 23.2 kickoff return average).
Eastern Washington averages 540 yards and 37.7 points per game, rushing for 239 yards and passing for 301 yards each contest. The Eagles have produced 67 first downs in three games — 30 by rush and 32 via the pass.
Eastern Washington owns nine Big Sky Conference titles, five in the last eight seasons, and has qualified for the FCS playoffs 12 times, capturing the national title in 2010. Three former Eagles were Walter Payton Award winners — wide receiver Cooper Kupp in 2015, Bo Levi Mitchell in 2011 and Erik Meyer in 2005 — while J.C. Sherritt (2010) and Greg Peach (2008) were Buck Buchanan Award winners. Kupp also claimed the Jerry rice Award in 2012. Vernon Adams was runnerup for the Payton in 2013 and 2014.
The Eagles have earned winning seasons 20 times in the last 22 years, winning 67 percent of their games (177-94) and 119 of 171 Big Sky contests. Eastern Washington has posted a 5-3 record or better in Big Sky games 11 years in a row, is 46-8 in Big Sky contests since an 0-2 start in 2011 and sports a 45-10 overall mark at red-turfed Roos Field since 2010. 

Mustangs Update 

Protheroe headlines another strong group of Mustang ball carriers in Cal Poly's Spread Triple Option. Granted a medical redshirt after playing less than six quarters a year ago, Protheroe entered his final collegiate campaign No. 5 on the Mustangs' career rushing chart with 2,164 yards. In becoming Cal Poly's 20th 1,000-yard rusher in 2016, Protheroe amassed 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. He rushed for 779 yards as a sophomore in 2015 and, with 139 yards on a career-high 39 carries against Colgate in the 2017 opener, Protheroe entered the 2018 season with 14 career 100-yard games. His 228-yard performance against Brown was his 15th career game past the century mark and second 200-yard contest.
Jenkins passed for 597 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 377 yards and four more scores in five starts before suffering a season-ending injury in late September. He completed nine of 16 passes for 238 yards and four touchdowns against Northern Iowa, the most passing yards by a Mustang quarterback in a single game since Tony Smith threw for 407 yards and six touchdowns against South Dakota in 2009.
Joining Protheroe among the corps of ball carriers this fall are sophomores Broc Mortensen (206 yards as a true freshman in 2017) and Chuby Dunu (215 yards), junior Trey Nahhas, senior Malcolm Davis (99 yards) and redshirt freshman Duy Tran-Sampson.
The Mustangs' wide receiving corps is led by juniors J.J. Koski (team-leading 28 catches in 2017) and Jake Smeltzer (six) along with sophomore Ryan McNab (two). Koski made seven catches in the loss to Weber State two weeks ago, the most by a Mustang in five years.
Whitson, who played at left guard during his first three seasons as a Mustang, moved to center to replace Joey Kuperman this fall. Whitson is one of five offensive linemen who started at least four games a year ago. The others are tackles Ogee (six starts) and Shallcross (eight starts) and guards Tyler Whisenhunt 11 starts) and Paul Trujillo-Langdon (four starts).
On defense, the entire front three and half of the four linebackers needed to be replaced. Seniors Anders Turner (32 tackles in 2016) and Jayson Lee (60 tackles in 2017) anchor the linebacking corps. The secondary is the most experienced group, led by six veterans, the return of Nichols from injury and the addition of transfer Kevin Howell from Nevada.
Casey Sublette, who handled all kicking duties in 2017, returns, backed up by Alex Vega. Both are seniors. Vega kicked a 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in a 20-19 win over Montana in the 2015 opener while Sublette connected on a career-long 50-yarder for Cal Poly's only points against North Dakota State on Sept. 1.

Mustang Milestones 

Coached by Tim Walsh (52-54, UC Riverside '77), Cal Poly's football program is celebrating a trio of milestones this fall. The Mustangs are playing their 100th season on the gridiron and 25th at the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) level. In addition, Walsh is in his 10th season at the helm of the Cal Poly football program.
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 in 2016 with a 343.5-yard average. The four-year run atop the FCS in team rushing ended last fall as the Mustangs averaged just 231.7 yards per contest on the ground.

The Series

Cal Poly and Eastern Washington will be playing each other in football for the 10th time Saturday. The Eagles have a 7-2 series advantage, 4-0 at home, and a five-game winning streak in the series after defeating the Mustangs 42-21 in 2016 at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Tim Walsh is 7-13 against Eastern Washington -- 0-1 while coaching at Sonoma State, 7-7 while at Portland State and 0-5 at Cal Poly -- while Aaron Best is 0-0 against Cal Poly.
Quarterback Gage Gubrud passed for 357 yards and four touchdowns while wide receiver Cooper Kupp threw two scoring passes and caught another in Eastern Washington's win over the Mustangs two years ago. Gubrud completed 27 of 37 passes and Kupp finished with 11 receptions for 154 yards. Protheroe became the 20th Mustang in program history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season, rushing for 116 yards on 23 carries. Quarterback Dano Graves gained 121 yards on the ground for his third career 100-yard performance, scoring two of Cal Poly's touchdowns on runs of 9 and 1 yards. Protheroe scored the other Mustang touchdown on a one-yard run.
Best replaced Beau Baldwin as the Eagles' head coach on Jan. 21, 2017, after 20 seasons as a player (offensive lineman) and assistant coach at Eastern Washington. He was the starting center for the Eagles in 1998 and 1999, earning All-Big Sky honorable mention praise as a junior and first-team honors as a senior. He also was an All-American honorable mention as a senior and was selected to the FCS Athletic Directors Academic All-Star Team once and to the Big Sky All-Academic Team twice. Best graduated from Curtis High School in Tacoma, Wash., in 1996.

Mustang Notes II

Cal Poly, which captured the 2012 Big Sky title in its first year in the conference, was picked this summer to finish 10th (coaches) and 11th (media) in the 13-team Big Sky this fall. Eastern Washington was selected to claim the Big Sky crown in 2018. Southern Utah and Weber State shared the conference title in 2017 with 7-1 marks.
The Big Sky loses North Dakota in its lineup this fall, though the Fighting Hawks will continue to play a Big Sky schedule for two more years. Idaho returns to the Big Sky this fall after an 18-year run in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
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 62 of their last 85 home contests (73 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 100 of its last 175 games (58 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 48 and 39 of 86 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 17 years.
Cal Poly continues Big Sky Conference play next Saturday (Sept. 29) by hosting Montana, with kickoff inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium set for 4:05 p.m. The game will be televised by Eleven Sports, available on DirecTV channel 623, Charter SD channel 346 and HD channel 879 as well as on AT&T, U-verse, Verizon FiOS and Google Fiber.
Photo above of sophomore linebacker Matt Shotwell courtesy of Nathan Nybakke | 805 Photography