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Cal Poly Set for Big Sky Opener Saturday Night at Southern Utah

Cal Poly Set for Big Sky Opener Saturday Night at Southern Utah
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (1-2, 0-0 Big Sky), which ended the 2018 season with a 14-point win over Southern Utah, the Mustangs' 15th consecutive victory at home against the Thunderbirds, wraps up a three-game road trip and opens Big Sky Conference play Saturday night by visiting Southern Utah (1-3, 0-0 Big Sky) at Eccles Coliseum (cap.: 8,500) in Cedar City, Utah.
Kickoff is set for 5:05 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 Vernon (Veejay) Huskey (analyst). Pregame show starts at 4:30 p.m. The game also will be streamed on Pluto TV Channel 536 and Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at
Cal Poly racked up 607 yards of total offense in a season-opening 52-34 win over San Diego, led by redshirt freshman Jalen Hamler and sophomore fullback Duy Tran-Sampson. In his first game in a Mustang uniform, Hamler passed for 221 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 96 yards and two more scores en route to ROOT SPORTS Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors. Tran-Sampson, who had just one carry for four yards as a redshirt freshman behind record-breaker Joe Protheroe a year ago, sprinted 87 yards on his first carry of 2019  for a touchdown and finished with 172 yards and two scores, averaging 11.5 yards per carry.
Opening its three-game road trip in Ogden, Utah, three weeks ago, the Mustangs were held to 164 rushing yards and had the ball for just 24 minutes, 45 seconds in a 41-24 setback versus Weber State, Cal Poly's fourth straight loss to the Wildcats. Hamler completed 11 of 14 passes for 182 yards and rushed for 53 yards and one touchdown, a 47-yard run. Lepi Lataimua ran 50 yards for a score and Brandon Davis recovered a blocked Wildcat punt in the end zone for a touchdown.
Playing its second game ever against a Pac-12 school two weeks ago, Cal Poly fell 45-7 at Oregon State. Tran-Sampson rushed for 137 yards on 29 carries and Hamler hit redshirt freshman wide receiver Xavier Moore with an eight-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, tying the game at 7-7. The Beavers scored 38 unanswered points to win going away.
Southern Utah opened its season with a 56-23 loss at UNLV and 34-14 at No. 11 Northern Iowa, defeated Stephen F. Austin 45-38 in overtime in its home opener, and went back out on the road for a 43-7 loss at No. 3 South Dakota State. Against the Jackrabbits last week, Southern Utah fell behind 21-0 before getting on the scoreboard with a one-yard run by quarterback Chris Helbig 29 seconds before halftime. The Jackrabbits pulled away with the final 22 points of the game. Helbig completed 26 of 38 passes for 211 yards with one interception and no touchdowns. He connected with Lance Lawson on nine completions for 75 yards. James Felila and Helbig both carried the ball 14 times — Felila gaining 46 yards and Helbig 40. Kekoa Sasaoka attempted three field goals, but two were blocked and he missed a 40-yarder. 
Under fourth-year head coach Demario Warren (17-21, UC Davis '08), Southern Utah returned a total of 11 starters — five on offense and six on defense — led by two-time first-team All-Big Sky center Zach Larsen, running back Jay Green (21 career rushing touchdowns), wide receiver Landen Measom (96 career receptions as a freshman and sophomore) and safety AJ Stanley (55 tackles in 2018). Measom and cornerback Jalen Russell were freshman All-Americans in 2017 when the Thunderbirds earned a share of the Big Sky title and finished 9-3 overall. 
Cal Poly enjoys a 20-9 advantage in its series against Southern Utah dating back to 1986. The Mustangs haven't lost to the Thunderbirds at home since 1986, going 15-1, and Cal Poly is 5-8 in Cedar City following a 20-14 loss to the Thunderbirds in 2017. The Mustangs won nine straight games in the series from 2001-09. 
In last year's game, quarterback Khaleel Jenkins passed for a career-high five touchdowns, one shy of the school record, and Protheroe smashed the school record for career rushing yards as Cal Poly wrapped up its 2018 season with a 38-24 triumph.
Jenkins completed nine of 13 passes for 196 yards and surpassed his former career high of four touchdown passes set against Northern Iowa in 2017. He hit J.J. Koski and Quentin Harrison twice on scoring passes and Malcolm Davis with another. Protheroe earned his ninth straight 100-yard game and his 23rd career contest over the century mark with 183 yards on 34 carries.
In 2015, also at Cedar City, Southern Utah won 54-37 even though Cal Poly produced four 100-yard rushers. Southern Utah returned three Mustang fumbles for touchdowns, two by Jason Needham. Jared Mohamed (107 yards), Kyle Lewis (121 yards), Chris Brown (110 yards) and DJ Peluso (108 yards) all surpassed the 100-yard mark, the second time the feat has been accomplished in the FCS. Davidson equalled the feat in 2018 against San Diego. Tim Walsh is 6-4 against Southern Utah (4-3 as head coach at Cal Poly) while Warren is 1-1 against Cal Poly.
Southern Utah claimed Big Sky titles in both 2015 and 2017 and its nine wins in 2017 is a school record. The Thunderbirds, who joined the Big Sky in 2012 along with Cal Poly, UC Davis and North Dakota, also earned an FCS playoff berth in 2013. From 2001-07, Southern Utah won just 17 of 76 games.
Southern Utah runs a spread offense and a 3-4 defense.
The Thunderbirds are 10th among the 13 Big Sky schools in scoring offense (22.2 points per game) and last in scoring defense (42.8). Southern Utah is ninth in total offense and seventh in total defense. The Thunderbirds average just 94.0 yards per game on the ground (11th in the Big Sky) and 268.8 yards a contest passing (No. 6) while giving up 195.8 yards rushing (No. 12) and 242.5 yards through the air (No. 5).
Southern Utah has converted just 33 percent of its third-down plays (22 of 67), 12th in the Big Sky and 91st among 124 FCS schools) and is four of 11 on fourth down.
Warren was Southern Utah's defensive backs coach for six years and defensive coordinator for two seasons before he was named head coach prior to the 2016 campaign. Warren was a three-year letterman at running back for UC Davis before injuries cut short his senior season. A native of Fairfield, Warren earned his degree in African-American studies at UC Davis in 2008 and an MBA from University of Phoenix.
Cal Poly returned 10 starters on defense and six on offense. Biggest holes to fill were at outside linebacker (three players with five or more starts are gone) and right up the middle on offense — Protheroe, quarterback Khaleel Jenkins and center Harry Whitson, one of four offensive linemen with five or more starts who are gone. Whitson is now an offensive analyst with the Mustangs.
Protheroe amassed 1,810 yards on 363 carries last season, raising his career totals to 861 carries and 4,271 yards, all new school records. His 23 career 100-yard games, including five over the 200-yard mark, also are school records, and Protheroe earned seven All-America honors in 2018 after leading the Big Sky and FCS in rushing. Jenkins rushed for 664 yards and passed for 777 more yards, accounting for nine touchdowns in each category. 
Top Mustang returnees are wide receiver J.J. Koski, offensive linemen Paul Trujillo-Langdon and Tyler Whisenhunt and the top four tacklers on defense in 2018 — inside linebackers Matt Shotwell (90 tackles) and Nik Navarro (83 tackles), cornerback Kitu Humphrey (67 tackles) and safety Carter Nichols (59 tackles). Koski led the Mustangs in receiving for the second straight year with 33 catches for 666 yards and four scores in 2018. Trujillo-Langdon moved from right guard to center to replace Whitson and Whisenhunt remained at left tackle after earning second-team All-Big Sky honors a year ago.
Drew Hernandez (664 yards, 7.6 yards per carry, nine touchdowns) and J'uan Campbell (195 yards, two scores) will head the list of returning slot backs this fall. Both missed the first two games due to injury. Replacing Protheroe at fullback are Tran-Sampson, senior Trey Nahhas, redshirt freshman Ryan Rivera and grayshirt Dusty Frampton.
Hamler won a three-man battle with sophomore Kyle Reid and junior Jake Jeffrey for the vacant quarterback position.
On defense, only two of the top 10 players at the three positions on the defensive front last year are gone. Sophomore Jojo Falo made five starts at defensive tackle, sophomore Pono Faaagi started seven games at nose tackle and sophomore Myles Cecil played all 11 games with seven starts at the defensive end spot. Cecil had 39 tackles, Falo 15 and Faaagi 11 a year ago. Falo suffered an injury on the first play of the San Diego game and could be out for the season.
Dominic Frasch, the national leader in passes defended a year ago, has moved on, but the secondary has plenty of returning experience. Junior field cornerback Kevin Howell played in nine games in 2018 while senior Sharky Reza (15 tackles, five pass breakups in 2018) tops the field at boundary corner. Senior Carter Nichols (59 tackles, five pass breakups in 2018) and junior Bradley Mickey (10 tackles) are the top two candidates at field safety while senior Kitu Humphrey (67 tackles, nine pass breakups) returns for his final season at boundary safety.
Coached by Tim Walsh (11th season at Cal Poly (57-60), 29th season overall (174-142), UC Riverside '77), Cal Poly's football program celebrated a trio of milestones last fall. The Mustangs played their 100th season on the gridiron and 25th at the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) level while Walsh completed his 10th season at the helm of the Cal Poly football program.
Cal Poly played eight games against teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at one time or another last season. In addition, Sacramento State earned votes in a preseason poll while Southern Utah earned a share of the Big Sky title in 2017. Despite the difficult schedule, the 14th-toughest in the nation according to Jeff Sagarin of USA Today, the Mustangs managed a four-win improvement over 2017.
Cal Poly, which captured the 2012 Big Sky title in its first year in the conference, was picked to finish ninth by both the head coaches and the media in the 13-team Big Sky this fall. Eastern Washington was selected to claim the 2019 Big Sky crown, followed by UC Davis and Weber State.
The Big Sky lost North Dakota in its lineup last fall, though the Fighting Hawks will continue to play a Big Sky schedule as an independent for one more season before moving to the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020. Idaho, once a Pac-8 member in the 1960s, returned to the Big Sky last 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 65 of their last 90 home contests (72 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 105 of its last 186 games (57 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 22 of its last 54 and 41 of 92 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 18 years.
Cal Poly, which did not have a home game in September, continues Big Sky Conference play next Saturday (Oct. 5), hosting Montana State for its Hall of Fame Game. Kickoff in Alex G. Spanos Stadium is set for 5:05 p.m.
Photo of Cal Poly quarterback Jalen Hamler courtesy of James Smith | James Smith IV Photography