Posted: Aug 26, 2019
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-0, 0-0 Big Sky), which won four of its last six games following a 1-4 start a year ago, finishing 5-6 overall, seeks to continue that momentum opening the 2019 season Saturday afternoon with a non-conference matchup against the University of San Diego (0-0, 0-0 Pioneer) inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (cap.: 11,075).
The Youth Day kickoff is set for 2:05 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 1:30 p.m. The game also will be streamed on Pluto TV (Channel 544) and Watch Big Sky. Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
Cal Poly earned its fourth FCS playoff berth in 2016 and hosted San Diego in the opening round. In the last meeting between two of the four NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision teams in the Golden State, the Toreros prevailed 35-21 on a natural grass field that was hit by several hours of rain prior to kickoff. Senior running back Jonah Hodges scored three touchdowns and surpassed the 100-yard mark in rushing for the eighth time that season as San Diego defeated the Mustangs for the first time in six meetings.
The two clubs first met in 1959 — won by Cal Poly 36-14 in San Luis Obispo — and played a three-game series from 2012-14 as well as on the second weekend of the 2016 campaign, all won by the Mustangs. The 5-0 streak ended 11 weeks later despite Kelly Shepard's 63-yard interception return for a touchdown with 8:07 to play. That closed the deficit to seven points and, after Cal Poly fumbled the ball away on its next possession, San Diego scored the clinching touchdown with 2:23 to go.
San Diego has won or shared eight Pioneer League championships in a row and has qualified for the FCS playoffs four times in the last five years. The Toreros have won the last three Pioneer League titles with perfect 8-0 marks and have not lost a conference game since Oct. 10, 2015.
Seventh-year head coach Dale Lindsey welcomed back five starters on offense and eight on defense, losing six all-conference players, including veteran quarterback Anthony Lawrence. Top returnees include wide receiver Michael Bandy (88 receptions, 1,698 yards, 14 touchdowns in 2018), running back Emilio Martinez (710 yards, nine TDs), linebacker Kama Kamaka (team-leading 69 tackles in 2018) and defensive linemen Nick Friedel and Jacob Bergstrom, both All-Americans as sophomores a year ago.
San Diego utilizes a multiple-set offense and 4-3 defense.
Cal Poly returns 10 starters on defense and six on offense. Biggest holes to fill are at outside linebacker (three players with five or more starts are gone) and right up the middle on offense — record-breaking fullback Joe Protheroe, quarterback Khaleel Jenkins and center Harry Whitson, one of four offensive linemen with five or more starts who are gone.
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. Trujillo-Langdon moves from right guard to center to replace Whitson and Whisenhunt remains 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. Replacing Protheroe at fullback will be one of four candidates — senior Trey Nahhas, sophomore Duy Tran-Sampson, redshirt freshman Ryan Rivera and grayshirt Dusty Frampton.
A trio of Mustangs — redshirt freshman Jalen Hamler, sophomore Kyle Reid and junior Jake Jeffrey — are battling 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.
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 (56-58), 29th season overall (173-140), 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.
In his seventh season as head coach at San Diego (following two years as a Torero assistant), Dale Lindsey (55-16, Western Kentucky '64) has guided the Toreros to six straight winning seasons and FCS playoff berths in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Lindsey was hired as San Diego's head coach on December 29, 2012, replacing Ron Caragher, who was hired as head coach at San Jose State. Lindsey, San Diego's defensive coordinator in 2012 and linebackers coach in 2008, was at New Mexico State from 2009-11 as an assistant head coach and linebackers coach. His resume also includes over 30 years of football coaching at the high school, college and professional ranks.
Most recently with the Washington Redskins (2004-06), Lindsey also spent time on the San Diego Chargers staff as defensive coordinator (2002-03) and linebackers coach (1992-96). Lindsey played both linebacker and fullback for two years at Western Kentucky.
Walsh is 4-1 against San Diego while Lindsey is 1-3 against Cal Poly.
Cal Poly played eight games against teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at one time or another last season. 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. Idaho 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 64 of their last 89 home contests (72 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 104 of its last 183 games (57 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 22 of its last 52 and 41 of 90 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 18 years.
Cal Poly, which does not have a home game in September, plays its next three games on the road, beginning Sept. 7 with a non-conference contest at fellow Big Sky member Weber State. The Mustangs also play at Oregon State on Sept. 14 and, after a bye, open Big Sky play Sept. 28 at Southern Utah.