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Cal Poly Continues Big Sky Action Saturday by Hosting No. 17/18 Montana

Cal Poly Continues Big Sky Action Saturday by Hosting No. 17/18 Montana
WEEKLY NOTES: CAL POLY | MONTANA | BIG SKY
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SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (1-3, 0-1 Big Sky), which opened Big Sky Conference play with a 70-17 defeat at preseason favorite Eastern Washington last week, continues Big Sky action Saturday afternoon against perennial conference power and Nos. 17/18-ranked Montana (3-1, 1-0 Big Sky) inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (cap.: 11,075).
 
Kickoff is set for 4:05 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 3:30 p.m. The game also 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) with Bill Doleman providing the play-by-play. Links for audio and video streams (WatchBigSky.com, Pluto TV Channel 244) as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
 
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 before 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 two weeks ago. 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.
 
Last week, Eastern Washington compiled a 657-399 advantage in total offense in a 70-17 triumph over Cal Poly at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. The Mustangs fell despite 176 yards by Protheroe, two touchdown runs by J'uan Campbell (pictured above), a 25-24 edge in first downs, 94 offensive plays and a 20-minute advantage in time of possession. The 70 points are the most Cal Poly has allowed in a game since Pacific earned an 88-0 shutout in 1949 while the 53-point loss is the largest since Nevada posted a 63-0 win in 1998.
 
Despite a 7-4 campaign in 2017, including a 5-3 mark for a sixth-place tie in the Big Sky, Montana failed to make the FCS playoffs for the second straight year and fourth in the last eight seasons. That follows a stretch of 17 straight seasons that ended in playoff berths for the Griz. Bob Stitt was let go after three seasons at the helm of the Griz and Bobby Hauck, who coached Montana to an 80-17 mark and seven FCS playoff berths from 2003-09 at Montana before spending five years as head coach at UNLV and three more as an assistant at San Diego State, returned to Missoula last November to coach the Griz once again.
 
After wins over Northern Iowa and Drake and a loss at Western Illinois, Montana erased a 28-17 second-quarter deficit by outscoring Sacramento State 24-6 over the final 31 minutes for a 41-34 Big Sky-opening win last week in Missoula. Quarterback Dalton Sneed rushed for 206 yards and three touchdowns and completed 22 of 35 passes for 234 yards and another score for the Griz, who overcame 234 yards rushing by Hornet running back Elijah Dotson and Kevin Thomson's 259 yards passing. Both teams had over 500 yards of total offense.
 
A total of 11 Griz starters return — five on offense and six on defense — led by second-team All-Big Sky linebackers Josh Buss and Dante Olson and third-team kicker Brandon Purdy. Buss had 94 tackles (5.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for lost yardage) a year ago while Olson notched 38 tackles. Purdy was 44-for-47 on PAT kicks and 15 of 17 on field goals with a long of 47 yards. 
 
For the season, Sneed has rushed for 371 yards and five touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes (103 of 162) for 989 yards and six scores. His favorite target is Jerry Louie-McGee (26 catches, 303 yards, one TD) and four other Griz have 10 or more receptions. Louie-McGee caught 21 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns against Cal Poly in 2016.
 
Montana averages 426 yards and 35.5 points per game, rushing for 171 yards and passing for 255 yards each contest. The Griz have produced 83 first downs in three games — 26 by rush and 50 via the pass along with seven by penalty.
The Griz won 19 Big Sky championships from 1969 to 2011, have earned 24 FCS playoff berths, including an FCS-record 17 consecutive trips to the postseason from 1993 to 2009) and claimed national titles in 1995 and 2001.
 
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, 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 and his 176 yards last week at Eastern Washington was his 16th contest past the century mark. He needs 18 yards to surpass the 3,000-yard mark for his career.
 
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 three 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.
 
Coached by Tim Walsh (52-55, 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.
 
Cal Poly and Montana are meeting for the 21st time Saturday and, though the Mustangs have won the last three meetings, the Griz still hold a commanding 15-5 advantage in the series which began in 1969. In addition to the 20-19 win at Montana in the 2015 season opener on Vega's 49-yard field goal with four seconds left, Cal Poly also owns a 42-41 victory in 2016, a 41-21 triumph four years ago, a 35-33 win in 2010, all in San Luis Obispo, and a 35-21 victory in the opening round of the 2005 FCS playoffs at Missoula.
 
Tim Walsh is 6-12 against Montana, including a 2-9 mark while at Portland State from 1993 to 2006, while Bobby Hauck is 5-1 against Cal Poly. The Mustangs are 2-11 in Missoula and 3-4 against the Griz at home.
 
In 2016, the last meeting between the two teams, Dano Graves hit junior slot back Kyle Lewis with a 39-yard touchdown pass with 4:29 to play and Cal Poly held on for the win over the sixth-ranked Griz. After Cal Poly scored the go-ahead touchdown, Montana drove 34 yards in six plays but a 48-yard field goal attempt by Tim Semenza missed wide right with 1:55 to play. Cal Poly picked up one first down before it was forced to punt with 11 seconds to play. Louie-McGee returned the punt six yards to his own 17-yard line with one second to go. Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson completed a short pass to Keenan Curran and the Grizzlies attempted six laterals before B.J. Nard secured the tackle ending the game at about Montana's 19-yard line. Protheroe netted 90 yards on 17 carries while Kori Garcia added 73 yards on 11 trips and Lewis 52 on eight carries. Graves completed six of 10 passes for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
 
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 176 games (58 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 49 and 39 of 87 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 17 years.
 
Cal Poly continues Big Sky Conference play next Saturday (Oct. 6) at Sacramento State, with kickoff inside Hornet Stadium set for 6:05 p.m. The game will be televised by CW31 in the Sacramento area.
 
Photo above of J'uan Campbell courtesy of Owen Main | www.fansmanship.com