SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-5, 0-2 Big Sky), which has dropped Big Sky games to Northern Arizona and Idaho State and has the school's longest losing streak since the beginning of the 21st century, continues conference play Saturday night against Southern Utah (2-2, 0-1 Big Sky) at Eccles Coliseum (8,500) at Cedar City, Utah.
Kickoff for the 28th meeting between the two schools is set for 5:05 p.m. PDT. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN Radio (1280 am) with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Alex Clupper (analyst). Pregame show starts at 4:30 p.m. 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.
Cal Poly earned its fourth FCS playoff berth in 12 seasons last fall, finishing 7-5 and tied for fourth with Southern Utah in the Big Sky. Southern Utah was 6-5 in 2016, likely missing the FCS playoffs by one victory.
Colgate shut out Cal Poly for three quarters, the first team to do that since Southern Utah in 2010, and held off the Mustangs in the final minutes for a 20-14 win two weeks ago. An incomplete pass on fourth down at the Colgate 22 with 37 seconds remaining halted Cal Poly's late rally. San Jose State overcame an early 6-0 deficit and built a 20-6 lead before Cal Poly closed the gap to seven. It was still a seven-point margin with eight minutes left before the Spartans scored twice in a nine-second span to pull away for the 34-13 triumph.
Against Northern Iowa, Cal Poly scored two touchdowns in the final 2:05 of regulation to force overtime, but two illegal procedure penalties thwarted the Mustangs' drive after the Panthers scored. Northern Arizona led all the way in the Big Sky opener for both schools, pulling away with three consecutive touchdowns after Cal Poly closed the gap to 7-3 with a field goal. The Mustangs erased an early 10-0 deficit at Idaho State with 17 second-quarter points but let a 14-point third-quarter lead slip away as the Bengals outscored Cal Poly 21-3 over the final 18 minutes for a 38-34 triumph. Cal Poly quarterback Khaleel Jenkins rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns and also passed for two more scores.
Southern Utah welcomed back 42 letter winners, including 14 starters (six on offense, eight on defense), to Fall Camp in early August. Heading the list of veterans are quarterback Patrick Tyler, linebacker Mike Needham, defensive linemen Taylor Pili and Robert Torgerson and safety Kyle Hannemann. Tyler threw for 2,296 yards and 23 touchdowns while Needham earned five interceptions and 76 tackles, including nine for loss and three sacks. Pili notched 47 tackles, 9.5 for loss and five sacks while Torgerson with 11 tackles for loss, including five sacks. Hannemann recorded two interceptions, five pass deflections, 37 tackles and a forced fumble.
Southern Utah suffered a 77-21 loss at Oregon to open the 2017 season, then defeated Stephen F. Austin 51-14 and Northern Iowa 24-21. The Thunderbirds opened Big Sky play with a 54-27 loss at Sacramento State before entering their bye week. The Hornets snapped a 7-7 tie with three unanswered touchdowns and never looked back. Starting his first game at quarterback in five years, Aaron Zwahlen threw for 188 yards, including six completions to Bryan Beckon. James Felila rushed 17 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns.
Northern Iowa, which defeated Cal Poly 45-38 on Sept. 9, was held to minus-14 rushing yards, turned the ball over three times, gave up 12 1/2 tackles for loss with four sacks and had a potential go-ahead field goal late in the game blocked by Southern Utah.
For the season, Felila leads all Thunderbird rushers with 295 yards and five touchdowns in four games. Tyler, who did not play against Sacramento State after getting "banged up" in the Northern Iowa contest, has rushed for 115 yards and two scores while also completing 62 of 108 passes (57 percent) for 816 yards and six scores. If Tyler isn't available Saturday, Zwahlen will start. He has completed 32 of 54 passes (59 percent) for 293 yards and one score with three interceptions. Top Thunderbird receiver is Landen Measom with 17 receptions for 349 yards and a pair of scores.
Southern Utah has 34 tackles for lost yardage (nine sacks) in four games. Chinedu Ahanonu leads the way with 39 total tackles (7 TFLs).
Senior fullback Joe Protheroe headlined another strong group of ball carriers in Cal Poly's Spread Triple Option, but likely is sidelined the rest of the 2017 season with an injury. In becoming Cal Poly's 20th 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, Protheroe amassed 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground and is No. 8 on the career rushing chart with 2,461 yards. Jared Mohamed, also a senior, also returns after collecting 343 yards in 2016. The group of slot backs features all-purpose player Kyle Lewis (591 rushing yards and six TDs, team-leading 22 catches for 375 yards and four scores in 2016).
Jenkins started one game in 2015 against Portland State and appeared in four games last season with one incomplete pass and one carry for two yards. He completed nine of 16 passes for 238 yards and four touchdowns against Northern Iowa, the most passing yards by a Mustang quarterback since Tony Smith threw for 407 yards and six touchdowns against South Dakota in 2009.
Two of last year's five starting offensive linemen are back in junior left guard Harry Whitson and center Joey Kuperman -- the other three probable starters played all 12 games a year ago -- and the Mustangs' wide receiving corps is led by sophomores J.J. Koski (18 catches in 2016) and Jake Smeltzer (five). Protheroe and Kuperman landed on the 2017 All-Big Sky Preseason Team.
On defense, Cal Poly returns all four starters in the secondary, but three of the four linebackers and one of the linemen need to be replaced. The good news is that Charlie Davis and R.J. Mazolewski, both of whom played in the first three games of 2016 before suffering season-ending injuries, are back and healthy. Anders Turner and Jayson Lee, who combined for five starts a year ago, return as well, and Mason Montgomery and Darren Adjei each played at least 11 games last fall.
The secondary features safeties B.J. Nard, Kitu Humphrey, Carter Nichols and Aaron Johnson and cornerbacks Dominic Frasch, Jerek Rosales, Kevin Griffin and Kam Dennis. All played at least 11 games in 2016. Nickel back Aaryn Bouzos, who also played all 12 games with two interceptions, returns as well.
The kicking game has both of last year's kickers back -- Casey Sublette and Alex Vega. Sublette handled most of the chores in 2016, averaging 36.8 yards over 29 punts and making 54 of 56 PATs and all six field goal attempts. Vega, who punted 10 times for a 40.7 average, is best known for his 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in a 20-19 win over Montana in the 2015 opener.
Coached by Tim Walsh (ninth season, 50-47, UC Riverside '77), Cal Poly began its 98th season of football in 2016 by winning six of its first eight games before losing three of its final four contests, including a 35-21 setback at the hands of San Diego in the opening round of the FCS playoffs, almost three months after a 38-16 triumph in Week Two.
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 last fall with a 343.5-yard average.
The Mustangs struggled offensively in the first two weeks of the 2017 campaign, averaging just 203 yards on the ground and 264 yards in total offense, before exploding for 543 yards at Northern Iowa and 463 yards at Idaho State. Despite the 0-5 record, the Mustangs enjoy an eight-minute advantage in time of possession and lead the Big Sky in rushing (252.6 yards per game), but are just 32 of 85 on third-down plays (38 percent) and have lost eight fumbles in five games.
In the absence of Protheroe, Jared Mohamed has produced 431 yards, including a pair of 100-yard games. Jenkins has completed 28 of 66 passes (42 percent) for 597 yards and eight touchdowns. Koski is Jenkins' top target with 12 catches for 216 yards and three scores. Lewis has eight receptions for 290 yards and four TDs.
Defensive leaders for the Mustangs five games into the season are senior linebacker Mason Montgomery (55 tackles, 17 against San Jose State and 14 more at Northern Iowa), senior linebacker R.J. Mazolewski (36 tackles, 4.0 for lost yardage and 1.5 sacks) and sophomore linebacker Jayson Lee (35 tackles). Sophomore safety Kitu Humphrey and junior cornerback Dominic Frasch have the only Mustang interceptions for Cal Poly, which has logged 30 tackles for lost yardage (10 sacks).
The Mustangs are 0-5 for the first time since the 2002 squad lost its first five games as well. The loss to Northern Arizona was Cal Poly's first in a conference home opener since 2007 when the Mustangs fell 31-28 to North Dakota State. Cal Poly was 5-0 in Big Sky home openers after winning its last four in the Great West.
Cal Poly enjoys a 19-8 advantage in its series against Southern Utah dating back to 1986. The Mustangs haven't lost to the Thunderbirds at home since 1986, going 14-1, and Cal Poly is 5-7 in Cedar City. The Mustangs won nine straight games in the series from 2001-09. Last meeting between the two schools was in 2015 at Cedar City, won by the Thunderbirds 54-37 even though Cal Poly produced four 100-yard rushers. Southern Utah returned three Mustang fumbles for touchdowns, two by Needham. Mohamed (107 yards), Lewis (121 yards), quarterback Chris Brown (110 yards) and slot back DJ Peluso (108 yards) all surpassed the 100-yard mark – only the second time the feat has been accomplished in the FCS. Tim Walsh is 5-3 against Southern Utah (3-2 as head coach at Cal Poly) while second-year Thunderbird head coach Demario Warren is 0-0 against Cal Poly.
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, which captured the 2012 Big Sky title in its first year in the conference, was picked by head coaches and media this summer to finish fourth in the 13-team Big Sky. North Dakota and Eastern Washington shared the conference title in 2016 with 8-0 marks. North Dakota was ranked No. 1 by both the media and coaches to repeat this season, followed by Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona.
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 60 of their last 80 home contests (75 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 98 of its last 166 games (60 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 44 and 39 of 82 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 16 years.
After a bye next week, Cal Poly returns home to host Weber State on Parents and Family Weekend. Kickoff for the Oct. 21 contest inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium is set for 6:05 p.m.