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Cal Poly Starts Two-Game Road Trip Saturday at Northern Arizona

Cal Poly Starts Two-Game Road Trip Saturday at Northern Arizona
 
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (2-5, 1-3 Big Sky), which let an early 10-0 lead slip away in the annual Battle for the Golden Horseshoe contest against UC Davis last week, continues Big Sky action Saturday afternoon with the first of back-to-back Big Sky Conference road games, visiting Northern Arizona (3-4, 2-2 Big Sky) inside the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome (cap.: 10,000) in Flagstaff, Ariz.
 
Kickoff is set for 4:05 p.m. PDT/MST 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 on CW6 in Arizona and streamed on Pluto TV (Channel 239). 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 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 2018 campaign 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. 6 Weber State in a non-conference matchup of Big Sky Conference rivals before rushing 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. 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. 
 
No. 4 Eastern Washington compiled a 657-399 advantage in total offense in a 70-17 triumph over Cal Poly at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., on Sept. 22, opening Big Sky play. In front of a national television audience (Eleven Sports), Cal Poly produced a 32-18 advantage in first downs, 512-468 in total offense and over 17 minutes in time of possession, but lost two fumbles and were stopped three times on fourth-and-short plays in a 48-28 setback against No. 15 Montana. Protheroe rushed for 139 yards and surpassed the 3,000-yard mark in career rushing, scoring three touchdowns, while sophomore slot back Drew Hernandez added 135 yards on just 14 trips. Protheroe added 128 more yards to his career rushing total, scoring once, Hernandez gained 113 yards on the ground and J.J. Koski returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown and ran 68 yards on a reverse for another score in the Mustangs' win over Sacramento State.
 
Last week, No. 10 UC Davis scored 52 unanswered points to overcome the early 10-0 Cal Poly lead and maintained sole possession of first place in the Big Sky with a 52-10 triumph. Protheroe earned his fifth straight 100-yard game with 147 yards on 33 carries and moved up to No. 4 in career rushing, surpassing Louis Jackson. He has 19 career 100-yard games, a Big Sky-leading 935 yards this season, 3,396 career yards and needs 226 yards to catch No. 3 James Noble and 65 yards for his second 1,000-yard campaign.
 
Northern Arizona, which earned an NCAA Division I FCS playoff berth a year ago but lost quarterback Case Cookus to injury in the second week of the current season, fell to 3-4 on the year last week as Northern Colorado slipped into the win column for the first time in 2018 with a 42-14 victory at Greeley, Colo. Joe Logan scored both Northern Arizona touchdowns on short runs for a 14-12 halftime lead, but the Lumberjacks gave up a fumble in the end zone, a blocked punt and a 49-yard interception return for another score. In his first start of the year, signal caller Gino Campiotti completed 16 of 31 passes for 132 yards and Logan finished with 93 rushing yards.
 
Northern Arizona opened the year with a 30-10 upset of UTEP, one of seven wins by FCS schools over their counterparts in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season, then fell to Eastern Washington and Missouri State to close out the non-conference portion of the schedule. The Lumberjacks defeated Southern Utah 31-23 to open Big Sky play, lost to Idaho State 56-42 and upset No. 7 Weber State 28-24 before faltering last week at Northern Colorado with four turnovers (three interceptions) and the blocked punt.
 
A total of 16 Lumberjack starters return — seven on offense and nine on defense — led by senior wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, the school's career receiving yards record-holder with 3,067. Cookus, who also missed most of the 2016 campaign with another injury, is a two-time All-Big Sky selection while safety Wes Sutton was a first-team All-Big Sky pick in 2017 with 72 tackles and five pass breakups. Kam'ron Johnson, another safety, made 81 tackles en route to second-team All-Big Sky honors a year ago.
 
For the season, Logan has 310 yards on the ground, scoring three times, while Daniel Bridge-Gadd, who started four games in Cookus' absence, completed 111 of 194 passes for 1,324 yards and nine scores. Butler has 30 receptions for 526 yards and four touchdowns and six other Lumberjacks have 10 or more catches this year. Eight different receivers have at least one touchdown catch. Johnson and Khalil Dorsey each has three interceptions on the year, DJ Arnson is second in the Big Sky with his 47.4 punting average and defensive tackle Jalen Goss has 9.0 tackles for lost yardage. 
 
Northern Arizona averages 396 yards and 26 points per game, rushing for 138 yards and passing for 258 yards each contest. The Lumberjacks have allowed 387 yards and 32 points a game, including 198 on the ground and 189 through the air. The Lumberjacks are second in the nation with 14 interceptions in seven games, No. 3 by forcing 20 turnovers, 12th with 56 tackles for lost yardage, 24th in kickoff returns (23.78), 26th in passing yards allowed (189.7) and 27th in net punting (37.38).
 
Like Cal Poly, Northern Arizona played its first official football season in 1915 and is 465-457-23 all time, capturing Big Sky titles in 1978 and 2003. The Lumberjacks have made six FCS playoff appearances, including five under current head coach Jerome Souers.
 
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 2,461 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 he added 176 yards at Eastern Washington, 139 against Montana, 128 at Sacramento State and 147 versus UC Davis, his 19th contest past the century mark. He surpassed the 3,000-yard mark for his career in the Montana game and, with 3,396 career yards, needs 226 yards to catch No. 3 James Noble on Cal Poly's career rushing chart.
 
Jenkins passed for 597 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 377 yards and four more scores in five starts in 2017 before suffering a season-ending injury in late September. He passed 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 were 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. Mortensen, however, is out for the season due to a foot injury suffered in the Brown game.
 
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, 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 (53-57, 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.
 
This week, the Mustangs are No. 1 in time of possession (34:58), No. 4 in rushing offense (320.9) and No. 5 in third-down conversion (49.2 percent) and are one of the fewest penalized teams in the FCS.
 
Northern Arizona has an 11-1 advantage in its series against Cal Poly after posting a 28-10 victory a year ago in San Luis Obispo. Lone Mustang win in the series was a 42-34 decision in 2012 at Flagstaff, clinching for Cal Poly its first Big Sky title and an FCS playoff berth. In the 2017 contest, Cookus passed for 406 yards and four touchdowns, completing 35 of 46 passes for the Lumberjacks. Cal Poly was held to a 29-yard field goal by Casey Sublette and a 60-yard scoring pass from Khaleel Jenkins to J.J. Koski after Northern Arizona had built a 28-3 lead in the Mustangs' Hall of Fame Game. The Mustangs lost a conference home opener for the first time since 2007 when Cal Poly fell to North Dakota State 31-28 in a Great West Conference home opener. The Mustangs had won nine conference home openers in a row, including a 5-0 mark in the Big Sky. Jared Mohamed rushed for 124 yards on 29 carries for Cal Poly. Tim Walsh is 5-10 against Northern Arizona while Jerome Souers is 6-1 against Cal Poly. The Mustangs are 0-6 against the Lumberjacks in San Luis Obispo and 1-5 in Flagstaff.
 
In his 21st season at the helm of the Lumberjacks, Souers and the university announced during a press conference before the start of conference play a year ago that they would part ways following the 2017 season. Souers, the winningest coach in Big Sky history, then guided NAU to a six-game winning streak, a third-place Big Sky finish and a berth in the FCS playoffs. The school rehired Souers before the first round of the playoffs.
 
Souers, 60, has compiled a 122-112 overall record since joining NAU in 1998. He was an assistant coach at Western Washington (1984), Portland State (1985) and Montana (1986-97) before taking his first head coaching gig in Flagstaff. 
 
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 87 home contests (71 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 101 of its last 179 games (55 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 21 of its last 50 and 40 of 88 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 17 years. The Mustangs' win at Sacramento State on Oct. 6 snapped a nine-game road losing streak.
 
Cal Poly plays at Montana State on Nov. 3 before closing out the season with home contests versus Idaho State (Nov. 10) and Southern Utah (Nov. 17).
 
Photos courtesy of Owen Main (Joe Protheroe) and Nathan Nybakke (defense)