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Cal Poly Plays Final 2018 Road Game on Saturday at Montana State

Cal Poly Plays Final 2018 Road Game on Saturday at Montana State
 
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (3-5, 2-3 Big Sky), which produced a 28-point second-quarter explosion in a 38-28 victory over Northern Arizona last week, plays its final road game of the 2018 season Saturday afternoon, visiting Montana State (4-4, 2-3 Big Sky) inside Bobcat Stadium (cap.: 17,777) in Bozeman, Mont.
 
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 Montana and streamed on Pluto TV (Channel 238). Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available above 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 (pictured above) 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.
 
Two weeks ago, No. 10 UC Davis scored 52 unanswered points to overcome an early 10-0 Cal Poly lead with 52 unanswered points and a 52-10 triumph. Protheroe rushed for 147 yards on 33 carries and moved up to No. 4 in career rushing, surpassing Louis Jackson. Last week at Northern Arizona, Protheroe earned his third career 200-yard game with 217 yards on 39 carries, scoring once, and quarterback Khaleel Jenkins threw his first two touchdown passes and ran for two more scores. With 11 tackles, linebacker Matt Shotwell earned his fourth double-digit game in tackles this season while cornerback Dominic Frasch intercepted a Lumberjack pass at the one-yard line with 54 seconds remaining to clinch the victory for the Mustangs. Cal Poly has beaten Northern Arizona just twice in 13 meetings. Both wins were in Flagstaff. The first victory clinched for the Mustangs the Big Sky title in 2012.
 
Protheroe has six consecutive 100-yard performances, 20 career 100-yard games and a Big Sky-leading 1,152 yards this season, joining five other Mustangs with a pair of 1,000-yard campaigns. Protheroe has rushed for 3,613 career yards and needs 65 yards to catch No. 3 James Noble, 221 yards to reach No. 2 Antonio Warren and 592 yards for the school record of 4,205 yards set by Craig Young from 1996-99. Protheroe joined Noble, Young, Warren, Louis Jackson and Chris Brown as Mustangs with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons rushing.
 
Under third-year head coach Jeff Choate (13-17, Montana-Western '93), Montana State opened the season with a 4-2 mark before suffering back-to-back losses to Weber State and Idaho State over the last two weeks. The Bobcats defeated Western Illinois, Wagner, Portland State and Idaho en route to the 4-2 start, falling to No. 3 South Dakota State and No. 6 Eastern Washington.
 
Montana State, which forced two punts and a pair of fumbles in the final 25 minutes of the game, tried to rally from a 24-7 deficit in the fourth quarter against Idaho State, but a fourth-down pass came up two yards short of a first down late in the game and the Bengals ran out the clock for the 24-17 triumph. Running back Isaiah Ifanse rushed for 120 yards and quarterback Troy Andersen added 106 yards, both on 19 carries, for the Bobcats and Andersen completed 16 of 28 passes for 173 yards. Kevin Kassis caught seven passes for 83 yards. Defensive end Grant Collins earned 13 tackles, including two for lost yardage.
 
The Bobcats are among the leaders in the FCS in lost fumbles (No. 2 with one), punt returns (No. 9 with 16.17 average) and net punting (No. 19 with 38.34 average).
 
A total of 15 Bobcat starters return — seven on offense and eight on defense — led by Anderson, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2017 who was a running back and netted 515 yards and five touchdowns in 2017. He is the quarterback this fall and is the team's top rusher with 884 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. The sophomore also has completed 67 of 125 passes (54 percent) for 661 yards and one score. Other top Bobcat returnees are defensive tackles Zach Wright (35 tackles in 2017) and Tucker Yates (41 tackles, 4.5 for lost yardage). Chris Murray, last year's starting quarterback, is sidelined with academic issues this fall.
 
For the season, Ifanse has rushed for 486 yards and four touchdowns. Top Bobcat receiver is Kevin Kassis with 35 catches for 446 yards and three scores. Safety Jahque Alleyne has four interceptions while linebacker Brayden Konkol leads the Bobcats in tackles with 51 along with one interception and two fumble recoveries. 
 
Montana State averages 351 yards and 27 points per game, rushing for 195 yards and passing for 156 yards each contest. The Bobcats have allowed 403 yards and 29 points a game, including 180 on the ground and 223 through the air. The Bobcats are 12th in the Big Sky in total offense and fourth in total defense and is first in the conference in sacks allowed (eight in eight games).
 
The Bobcats appeared in the FCS playoffs four times in a five-year span from 2010-14, claimed at least a share of the Big Sky title three straight seasons (2010-12) and captured the FCS national title in 1984.
 
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 on 43 carries against Brown are career highs and he added 176 yards at Eastern Washington, 139 against Montana, 128 at Sacramento State, 147 versus UC Davis and 217 at Northern Arizona, his 20th contest past the century mark. He surpassed the 3,000-yard mark for his career in the Montana game.
 
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 (pictured at left) made seven catches in the loss to Weber State, the most by a Mustang in five years, and leads the 2018 Mustangs with 23 catches for 425 yards.
 
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 (54-57, 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 (34:56), No. 5 in rushing offense (323.69) and No. 12 in third-down conversion (46.4 percent) and are one of the fewest penalized teams in the FCS.
 
The Mustangs and Bobcats are meeting for just the third time in the last 13 years and for the 16th time since the series began in 1958. The two schools did not meet from 2006-13. Cal Poly owns a 10-5 advantage in the series, winning eight in a row before Montana State earned a 45-28 victory in the 2015 Big Sky opener for both schools at Bozeman. Junior quarterback Dakota Prukop passed for 399 yards and three touchdowns as the No. 15 Bobcats sprinted to a 21-0 lead in the first 12 minutes and rolled to the victory. Cal Poly produced a pair of 100-yard rushers – Protheroe, then a sophomore, netting a career-high 156 yards on 27 carries and Kori Garcia adding 114 yards on 19 trips, but Montana State never punted and built an insurmountable 45-21 advantage heading into the final period.
 
In 2014 at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, quarterback Chris Brown rushed for two touchdowns and passed for another as Cal Poly stretched its winning streak to five by upsetting No. 8/9 Montana State 35-27. 
 
Jeff Choate is facing Cal Poly for the first time as a head coach while Tim Walsh is 7-6 against Montana State, including a 6-5 mark while at Portland State from 1993 to 2006. The Mustangs are 6-2 against the Bobcats in San Luis Obispo and 4-3 against the Bobcats in Bozeman. 
 
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 2018 Big Sky crown. Southern Utah and Weber State shared the 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 102 of its last 180 games (55 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 22 of its last 51 and 41 of 89 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 closes out the 2018 season with home contests versus Idaho State (Nov. 10) and Southern Utah (Nov. 17).