Cal Poly which opened its 2018 season with losses to a pair of top-10 teams in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, plays the only unranked team in the Mustangs’ first six weeks of the schedule Friday night, hosting Ivy League member Brown (0-0, 0-0 Ivy) inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Kickoff for the non-conference matchup is set for 7:05 p.m. 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 6:30 p.m.
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. Jenkins, however, reinjured his left knee in a 49-3 loss to No. 1 North Dakota State two weeks ago and likely won’t play this week.
The Mustangs also fell 24-17 to No. 10 Weber State last week in a non-conference matchup of Big Sky Conference rivals. The Mustangs’ comeback from a 24-10 deficit in the final eight minutes was halted by a fumble at the Weber State 39-yard line with 1:45 to go. Final statistics were very close — Weber State with a 193-188 edge in rushing, Cal Poly with the 133-131 advantage in passing and the Wildcats on top of a 324-321 lead in total offense.
Coming off a 2-8 campaign in 2017, including an 0-7 mark for last place in the Ivy League, Brown will be playing its season opener Friday night.
A dozen Bears starters return — six on each side of the ball — led by junior wide receiver Jakob Prall, an honorable mention All-Ivy selection last fall after catching 51 balls for 587 yards, and sophomore defensive lineman Michael Hoecht, who notched 45 tackles (24 solo), including 10 tackles for loss (five sacks), and also recovered three fumbles in 2017.
Brown has captured four Ivy League championships in football, three under current head coach Phil Estes. The Bears are opening their 141st season of intercollegiate football this weekend and Estes, in his 21st season at Brown, will be coaching his 200th career game Friday night.
Expect the Bears to display new offensive and defensive schemes this fall with 38 returning lettermen on hand. The Bears will use a Pro Set offense and a 3-4-4 defensive set (4-4-3 a year ago) against the Mustangs.
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.
Quarterback Khaleel 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 last week, 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 (51-54, 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.
Brown and Cal Poly are meeting for the first time in football Friday night. Cal Poly has faced just one other Ivy League school, falling 24-10 to Yale in 2013.
Brown’s only wins in 2017 were against Bryant and Rhode Island. The Bears lost their final seven contests by a combined score of 212-50.
In addition to three Ivy League titles, Estes has guided the Bears to second-place finishes four times, third place five times and 16 finishes in the top half of the league standings in his previous 20 years at the helm. Estes is 114-85 overall and 76-64 in Ivy League games while at Brown.
Five of his Brown players have gone on to win Super Bowl rings. The select fraternity includes James Develin of the New England Patriots (2015, 2017), two-time winner Zak DeOssie of the New York Giants (2008, 2012), the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Sean Morey (2006) and New England Patriots’ Drew Inzer (2001) and Chas Gessner (2003).
Estes was an assistant coach at Brown from 1994-97 before becoming head coach prior to the 1998 season. He also was an assistant at New Hampshire after beginning his coaching career at Concord High School in Concord, N.H. He is a 1980 graduate of New Hampshire, where he was a standout offensive and defensive lineman.
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 61 of their last 84 home contests (72 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 99 of its last 174 games (57 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 48 and 39 of 86 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 17 years.
Next week, Cal Poly opens Big Sky Conference play Saturday (Sept. 22) at Eastern Washington, with kickoff in Cheney, Wash, set for 1:05 p.m.