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Cal Poly, Montana State to Clash in Early Big Sky Showdown Saturday

Cal Poly, Montana State to Clash in Early Big Sky Showdown Saturday
 
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (2-2, 1-0 Big Sky), which kicked off its Big Sky season with a 24-21 victory at Southern Utah last week, continues conference play Saturday by hosting Montana State (4-1, 1-0 Big Sky) inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (cap.: 11,075). The Bobcats are ranked No. 6 in the STATS FCS Top 25 media poll and No. 7 in the AFCA Coaches Poll.
 
Kickoff for Cal Poly's Hall of Fame Game and first home contest since Aug. 31 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 broadcast live by SWX throughout the state of Montana with Chris Byers (play-by-play), Mike Callaghan (analyst) and Aunica Koch (sideline) and streamed on Pluto TV Channel 544 and WatchBigSky.com. Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
 
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 a three-game road trip in Ogden, Utah, four 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 (47 yards). 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 three 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.
 
In the Big Sky win at Southern Utah, Hamler ran for two scores, Jake Jeffrey added another scoring run and Colton Theaker connected on a 36-yard field goal. The Thunderbirds had a chance to send the game into overtime, but a 36-yard field goal attempt with 2:10 to play hit the left upright and Cal Poly was able to run out the clock.
 
After a 45-10 season-opening loss at Texas Tech, Montana State has reeled off wins over No. 12 Southeast Missouri State, Western Illinois, Norfolk State and, in its Big Sky opener last week, Northern Arizona, erasing a 31-14 deficit by scoring 35 consecutive points, including a 28-point fourth quarter explosion. The run started with a fumble recovery in the end zone and was followed by four rushing touchdowns. First two drives were 90 and 89 yards while the last two were just 20 and 33 yards after a fumbled Northern Arizona kickoff return and a Montana State interception. The Bobcats rushed for 340 yards, led by Travis Jonsen with 105 yards and two touchdowns, while Tucker Rovig completed 11 of 23 passes for 106 yards. 
 
Under fourth-year head coach Jeff Choate (21-19, Montana-Western '93), Montana State returned a total of 39 lettermen, including 13 starters — six on offense and seven on defense — off last year's 8-5 squad which finished tied for fourth in the Big Sky and reached the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The Bobcats are led by sophomore running back Isaiah Ifanse (1,025 rushing yards in 2018) and three decorated offensive linemen — preseason All-American Mitch Brott and Freshman All-American Connor Wood, both tackles, and guard Lewis Kidd (a sophomore All-American in 2018). Troy Anderson, last year's quarterback, returns to his more familiar positions at running back and linebacker this fall.
 
The Mustangs and Bobcats are meeting for just the fourth time in the last 14 years and for the 17th time since the series began in 1958. The two schools did not meet from 2006-13. Cal Poly owns a 10-6 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. The two teams met in 2018, also in Bozeman, with the Bobcats racing to a 42-14 third-quarter lead and holding off the Mustangs down the stretch. Ifanse rushed for 227 yards and three touchdowns in a showdown with Cal Poly's Joe Protheroe, who ran for 215 yards.
 
Last meeting between the Bobcats and Mustangs in San Luis Obispo was in 2014. Quarterback Chris Brown rushed for two touchdowns and passed for another as Cal Poly upset then-No. 8/9 Montana State 35-27. Protheroe, then a sophomore, netted 156 yards on 27 carries and slot back Kori Garcia added 114 yards on 19 trips for the Mustangs.
 
Jeff Choate is 1-0 against Cal Poly while Tim Walsh is 7-7 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 4-4 in Bozeman.
 
Montana State, which runs multiple offensive sets and a 3-4 defense, averages 440 yards and 35 points per game, rushing for 275 yards and passing for 165 yards each contest. The Bobcats have allowed 412 yards and 26 points a game, including 143 on the ground and 269 through the air. The Bobcats are sixth in the Big Sky in total offense and No. 6 in total defense as well and are first in the conference in rushing offense.
 
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. Last fall, Montana State defeated Incarnate Word in the opening round of the FCS playoffs before falling at eventual national champion North Dakota State 52-10.
 
Choate became Montana State's 32nd head football coach on Dec. 4, 2015. He has served as an assistant coach at Washington (2014-15), Florida (2013), Washington State (2012), Boise State (2006-11), Eastern Illinois (2005), Utah State (2003-04) and Montana-Western (1992-93), his alma mater. Choate also coached at Post Falls, Twin Falls and Challis (Idaho) high schools, all in his home state of Idaho.
 
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) headed the list of returning slot backs this fall, but Hernandez missed the first two games due to injury and Campbell likely will redshirt. 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 (58-60), 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 106 of its last 187 games (57 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 23 of its last 55 and 42 of 93 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 18 years.
 
Next week, Cal Poly continues Big Sky play at rival UC Davis in another installment of the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe. Kickoff in UC Davis Health Stadium is set for 4:05 p.m.