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Cal Poly Wraps Up 2019 Season on Saturday at Northern Colorado

Cal Poly Wraps Up 2019 Season on Saturday at Northern Colorado
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (2-8, 1-6 Big Sky), which has lost six straight games, four against teams currently in the FCS top 25 polls and another to last year's national runner-up, since a 2-2 start, plays its final game of the 2019 season Saturday, visiting Northern Colorado (2-9, 2-5 Big Sky) in a Big Sky Conference game at Nottingham Field (cap.: 8,533) in Greeley, Colorado.
Kickoff is set for 11:05 a.m. PST 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 10:30 a.m. The game also will be streamed on Pluto TV Channel 541 and Links for audio and video streams as well as live stats are available on the football schedule page at
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, 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 a Big Sky-opening 24-21 win at Southern Utah on Sept. 28, 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. 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.
UC Davis scored the first 34 points of the game and Cal Poly answered with 24 points of its own and drove to the Aggie 16-yard line on its next possession before UC Davis turned the Mustangs away with two scores in the final 11 minutes for a 48-24 win. Cal Poly had possession of the ball for over 33 minutes, but lost the turnover battle 3-0, punted eight times, did not record any sacks and was penalized a season-high 12 times for 102 yards in the annual Battle for the Golden Horseshoe. On Oct. 19, Cal Poly let 17-7, 23-14 and 26-24 leads slip away in a 30-26 loss to North Dakota, spoiling a 40-carry, 173-yard performance by Tran-Sampson. It was the Mustangs' first loss in four years when leading at halftime. 
Sacramento State scored the first 24 points of the game and never looked back in a 38-14 triumph three weeks ago, accumulating 503 yards in total offense and holding the Mustangs to a season-low 116 rushing yards. Cal Poly fell 21-9 at Idaho on Nov. 2 as the Mustangs struggled offensively again, rushing for just 145 yards. Cal Poly led for 28 minutes of the first half as Colton Theaker kicked a 44-yard field goal, but Idaho scored 21 unanswered points and never looked back. Last week, Cal Poly's 43 minutes, 7 seconds in time of possession and a 30-21 advantage in first downs went for naught as Eastern Washington led by 14 points on four occasions and held on for a 42-41 triumph. The Mustangs missed a two-point conversion try with 4:58 to play and a 35-yard field goal with 1:02 left on the clock. With 115 yards on just nine carries (12.5 yards-per-carry average), Drew Hernandez (pictured above) earned his third career 100-yard game for the Mustangs.
Northern Colorado fell 45-38 at North Dakota last week. The two teams combined for 986 yards of total offense and the Bears' Jaren Mitchell caught 10 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Jacob Knipp passed for 393 yards and three scores as Northern Colorado amassed 503 yards of offense. The Bears got the ball back for one final drive with 1:19 left but a sack and interception ended the threat.
Under ninth-year head coach Earnest Collins Jr. (28-71, Northern Colorado '95), Northern Colorado has beaten both Idaho schools — Idaho 27-24 and Idaho State 26-20 — while falling to San Jose State, Washington State, Sacramento State, South Dakota, Northern Arizona, Eastern Washington, Portland State, Montana State and North Dakota. Northern Colorado is No. 23 in the nation in interceptions (12) and 39th in turnovers forced (19) but is 123rd of 124 teams in total defense (512.6 yards allowed per game), 119th in scoring defense (38,6 points allowed per game), No. 116 in rushing yards allowed per game (234.4), 114th in passing yards allowed per game (278.3) and 123rd in first downs allowed (283).
Northern Colorado returned a total of 38 lettermen, including 11 starters — six on offense and five on defense — off last year's squad which posted a 2-9 mark, including a 2-6 record for 11th place in the 13-team Big Sky. The Bears are 78-58 at Nottingham Field, which opened in 1995, and its largest crowd was in 2005 when the Bears drew 9,145 for their game against Cal Poly. Northern Colorado claimed NCAA Division II national titles in 1996 and 1997 under head coach Joe Glenn and qualified for the Division II playoffs three more times before moving up to Division I. 
The Bears, who were members of the Great West Conference in 2004 and 2005 before joining the Big Sky in 2006, posted back-to-back 6-5 marks in 2015 and 2016, their first winning campaigns since 2003. Perhaps the best-known former Bear is wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who went on to play for the San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Reed Doughty was a Washington Redskin from 2006-14 and Ben Dreith and Pat Haggerty served as NFL officials while Ed Werder was an ESPN reporter.
Collins was 8-12 as head coach at Alcorn State in 2009 and 2010. He is Northern Colorado's single-season school record-holder for punt return yards and was a student assistant coach in 1995 and secondary/special teams coach from 2000-02. Collins also was an assistant coach at Northwest Missouri State (1996-99), Kansas (2003-06), Central Florida (2007) and Alcorn State (2008).
So far this year, Knipp has completed 61 percent of his passes (224 of 369) for 2,597 yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Knipp has suffered a season-ending injury in three consecutive seasons but has been healthy all year in 2019. His favorite targets have been Willie Fairman with 43 catches for 402 yards and four scores and Mitchell with 42 receptions for 670 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Bears have eight receivers with 17 or more catches. Top rusher is Milo Hall, who has 803 yards and nine scores to his credit after rushing for 757 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago. Cornerback Michael Walker has four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, while linebacker Luke Nelson and safety Jerone Jackson lead the Bears defensively with 102 and 99 tackles respectively.
Northern Colorado, which utilizes a spread offense and 3-4 defense, averages 356 yards and 20 points per game, rushing for 109 yards and passing for 247 yards each contest. The Bears have allowed 513 yards and 39 points a game, including 235 yards on the ground and 278 through the air.
Cal Poly and Northern Colorado are meeting for the 14th time in football this weekend and the Mustangs own a 10-3 advantage in the series, winning the first six meetings between the two schools since Cal Poly moved to Division I in 1994 before the Bears earned a 42-0 shutout in 2017 at Greeley. The series started in 1958 and the two teams closed the 2016 regular season in Alex G. Spanos Stadium with Cal Poly outscoring the Bears 55-48. Northern Colorado's last win against the Mustangs was a 14-13 decision in 1982 in San Luis Obispo.
Walsh is 5-1 against Northern Colorado, including twice while he was head coach at Portland State, while Collins is 1-3 against Cal Poly. Walsh also is 6-4 in season finales at Cal Poly.
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 902 yards and five touchdowns, producing three 100-yard games. He needs 98 yards in Cal Poly's final game to become the 23rd Mustang to reach 1,000 yards in a single season. Hamler, who won a three-man battle with sophomore Kyle Reid and junior Jake Jeffrey for the vacant quarterback position, has added 512 yards and nine scores while completing 61 of 104 passes (59 percent) for 1,162 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hamler is No. 1 in the Big Sky in passing efficiency. Koski, who has been selected to play in the 2020 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Jan. 18 at the Rose Bowl, has caught 40 passes for 857 yards and eight scores (career-high three touchdowns in Eastern Washington game), establishing new career highs last month at UC Davis with eight catches for 163 yards, and is No. 6 in career receptions (119) and No. 5 in receiving yards (2,300) at Cal Poly.
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 season-opening 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.
Junior linebacker Matt Shotwell leads Cal Poly's defense with 86 tackles, No. 9 in the Big Sky, while Humphrey has 69 tackles.
Coached by Tim Walsh (11th season at Cal Poly (58-66), 29th season overall (174-148), 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 year. 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 are playing a Big Sky schedule as an independent this year 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 94 home contests (70 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 106 of its last 193 games (56 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 23 of its last 57 and 42 of 95 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 18 years.
Photo of Drew Hernandez courtesy of Owen Main |