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Cal Poly Seeks Return to Win Column, Visits UC Davis on Saturday

Cal Poly Seeks Return to Win Column, Visits UC Davis on Saturday
 
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (2-3, 1-1 Big Sky) and UC Davis (2-4, 0-2 Big Sky), both coming off last-minute Big Sky Conference losses, clash in another edition of the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe on Saturday afternoon inside UC Davis Health Stadium (cap.: 10,743).
 
Kickoff is set for 4:05 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 3:30 p.m. The game also will be broadcast live by Eleven Sports with George Devine (play-by-play) and Steve Nicolopolous (analyst) at the microphones and streamed on Pluto TV Channel 545 and WatchBigSky.com. Eleven Sports is available on DIRECTV channel 623, Verizon Fios channel 597 and AT&T U-verse channel 1665. 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 September road trip in Ogden, Utah, on Sept. 7, 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. Playing its second game ever against a Pac-12 school four 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-opening 24-21 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. Last week, Montana State let a 21-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter, but Travis Jonsen ran nine yards in overtime as the Bobcats beat the Mustangs 34-28. Cal Poly had possession of the ball for nearly 39 minutes, including a 94-yard, 20-play drive that lasted 11 minutes, 40 seconds in the first quarter.
 
After a 10-3 season in 2018 that included a share of the Big Sky title and a quarterfinal-round berth in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs following a first-round bye and a second-round win over Northern Iowa, UC Davis has struggled against a difficult 2019 schedule. The Aggies are 2-4 overall with wins over San Diego and Lehigh and losses to California of the Pac-12, top-ranked North Dakota State, No. 18 Montana and, last week, 38-36 to North Dakota on a 46-yard field goal with 57 seconds remaining, dropping to No. 21 in the FCS Coaches Poll. 
 
Under third-year head coach Dan Hawkins (17-13 at UC Davis (129-74-1 overall), UC Davis '84), UC Davis returned a total of 57 lettermen, including 15 starters — nine on offense and six on defense — off last year's squad which posted the school's first winning season in football since the 2009 and 2010 squads both finished 6-5. The Aggies, who lost all-American wide receiver Keelan Doss (Oakland Raiders), are led by senior quarterback Jake Maier (3,669 passing yards and 26 touchdowns in 2017; 3,931 passing yards, 34 TDs in 2018), sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam (976 rushing yards, 13 TDs; 57 catches, 385 yards, four TDs), junior wide receiver Jared Harrell (62 catches, 896 yards, five TDs), sophomore linebacker Montell Bland (78 tackles), senior linebacker Nas Anesi (35 tackles) and senior tight end Wes Preece (29 catches, 337 yards, nine TDs).
 
This season, Gilliam has rushed for 455 yards and five scores, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, while Maier has completed 176 of 266 passes (66 percent) for 1,865 yards and 14 scores. Maier's favorite targets are Carson Crawford (33 catches, 428 yards, three TDs) and four other receivers with 24 or more receptions.
 
UC Davis, which runs a pro-set offense and 4-3 defense, averages 428 yards and 27 points per game, rushing for 95 yards and passing for 333 yards each contest. The Aggies have allowed 417 yards and 31 points a game, including 185 yards on the ground and 232 through the air. The Aggies are 13th in the nation in fourth-down conversions (17 of 28, 61 percent), 18th in completion percentage (65.1 percent), sixth with eight fumble recoveries, seventh in net punting (41.42) and sixth in passing (332.7 yards per game).
 
Cal Poly and UC Davis are meeting for the 45th time this week and the series was all tied up at 20-20-2 before the Aggies earned a 31-28 victory in 2017 at Davis and 52-10 last season in San Luis Obispo. In 2017, Maier passed for 459 yards and four touchdowns, completing 33 of 43 passes. Last year, Maier threw five touchdown passes (9, 19, 14, 12 and 17 yards), completed 17 of 33 attempts for 200 yards, as UC Davis overcame an early 10-0 Cal Poly lead with 52 unanswered points.
First game of the series was played in 1939 and the two teams have met every year since 1978. Tim Walsh is 9-11 against UC Davis -- 1-3 while coaching at Sonoma State, 4-2 while at Portland State and 4-6 at Cal Poly -- while Dan Hawkins is 2-0 against Cal Poly. Against the Aggies, the Mustangs are 12-10 at home and 8-12-2 in Davis.
 
Although the two teams are meeting for the 45th time, the official "Battle for the Golden Horseshoe" was established in 2004 as the student-run spirit clubs from both schools came together to sponsor a perpetual trophy that resides with the team that wins each year. The horseshoe-shaped trophy signifies the agricultural influence at both universities. Since the trophy was created in 2004, UC Davis leads the series 8-7. 
 
UC Davis has won 30 conference titles, all but one in Division II, claiming the Great West crown in 2009, and has made 20 NCAA postseason appearances, all but one in Division II. The Aggies are 518-425-33 in 101 seasons of football.
 
Hawkins, a UC Davis alum (1984) and 2018 Eddie Robinson Award winner, replaced Ron Gould as Aggie head coach on Nov. 28, 2016. He compiled a 56-11 mark in five seasons as head coach at Boise State (2001-05) and also coached at Colorado for five years (2006-10) before becoming an analyst on ESPN. He has coached 13 teams around the world, including the Montreal Alouettes, Vienna Vikings, Willamette, Sonoma State, College of the Siskiyous and Christian Brothers High School.
 
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) and safeties Kitu Humphrey (67 tackles) and 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
 
So far this fall, Tran-Sampson has rushed for 495 yards and two touchdowns while Hamler, who won a three-man battle with sophomore Kyle Reid and junior Jake Jeffrey for the vacant quarterback position, has added 316 yards and six scores while completing 30 of 49 passes (61 percent) for 617 yards and six touchdowns. Koski has caught 18 passes for 400 yards and three scores.
 
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 is 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 (58-61), 29th season overall (174-143), 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 91 home contests (71 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 106 of its last 188 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.
 
Cal Poly returns home for back-to-back games Oct. 19 against North Dakota (Blackout Game) and Sacramento State (Mustang Family Weekend) on Oct. 26. Both Big Sky contests kick off at 5:05 p.m.
 
Photo above of wide receiver Quentin Harrison courtesy of Owen Main | www.fansmanship.com