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Mixed Emotions as Cal Poly Football Team Enters the Offseason

Mixed Emotions as Cal Poly Football Team Enters the Offseason
 
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly wrapped up its 2019 football season with mixed emotions. Less than 48 hours after a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Northern Colorado, highlighted by cornerback Kevin Howell's 30-yard pick six for the go-ahead touchdown with 36 seconds remaining, capping a comeback from a 21-7 deficit, Mustang head coach Tim Walsh announced his retirement after 11 seasons at the helm.
 
The Mustangs finished the year 3-8, their third straight campaign below the .500 mark after qualifying for the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in 2016. The season could have had a different outcome, possibly 8-3, a share of the Big Sky Conference title and another playoff berth, were it not for some misfortune late in five games during a six-game losing streak.
 
The Mustangs fell 34-28 in overtime to Montana State after overcoming a 28-7 deficit in the fourth quarter. Cal Poly had two more possessions in the final seven minutes of regulation after tying the game at 28-28 but couldn't produce the go-ahead points.
 
At UC Davis, Cal Poly rallied from a 34-0 deficit with 24 straight points and was driving for another score before an Aggie pick six with 11 minutes left ended the threat. The following week, the Mustangs led North Dakota for almost 59 minutes before the Fighting Hawks scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:14 remaining in a 30-26 Mustang setback.
 
Cal Poly trailed Idaho by just four points, 7-3, until the Vandals scored two touchdowns midway through the second half. And against Eastern Washington two weeks ago, the Mustangs erased several 14-point deficits and scored a touchdown with 4:58 to play, only to be turned away by a missed two-point conversion and a 35-yard field goal attempt in the 42-41 loss.
 
The Mustangs, who won their season opener against San Diego and the Big Sky opener versus Southern Utah, finally snapped the skid last week in Greeley, 28-21, as Howell made a five-yard tackle for loss which led to one score in the comeback, intercepted a pass which sparked another scoring drive and returned his second theft of the game for the game-winning score on his way to ROOT SPORTS Defensive Player of the Week honors.
 
There were other heroes in the season-ending game as well. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Reid, substituting for starter Jalen Hamler, rushed for 143 yards and one touchdown while completing four of nine passes in the comeback. Sophomore fullback Duy Tran-Sampson added 135 yards and two scores, becoming the 23rd Mustang in program history to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for a single season. Tran-Sampson finished the year with 1,037 yards.
 
Junior linebacker Matt Shotwell added the exclamation point with his second interception of the year with 11 second left.
 
Senior wide receiver J.J. Koski wrapped up his Mustang career with a pair of catches, lifting his final totals in four seasons to 121 receptions for 2,311 yards and 18 touchdowns. Koski, named to the All-Big Sky first team on Tuesday and invited to play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at the Rose Bowl as well as the revived Hula Bowl inside Aloha Stadium, finishes sixth in career receptions, fifth in career receiving yards and tied for fifth in receiving touchdowns and was Cal Poly's top receiver each of the last three years. His 42 catches this year are the most by a Cal Poly player since 2010.
 
Tran-Sampson and senior offensive lineman Tyler Whisenhunt were named to the All-Big Sky second team, Shotwell landed on the third unit and sophomore defensive end Myles Cecil and senior defensive backs Carter Nichols and Kitu Humphrey, a two-year team captain, were accorded honorable mention praise.
 
Cal Poly beat San Diego 52-34 in its season opener, racking up 607 yards of total offense. 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.
 
Following losses to Weber State and Oregon State, Cal Poly opened Big Sky play with a 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. 
 
The Mustangs were 2-2 and poised to make a run at their second Big Sky title — Cal Poly claimed a share of the crown in 2012, its first season in the conference — but consecutive losses to Montana State, UC Davis, North Dakota, Sacramento State, Idaho and Eastern Washington dashed those hopes.
 
Five of Cal Poly's opponents this season have qualified for the FCS playoffs. The Mustangs also played their second game ever against a Pac-12 school and, according to USA Today's Jeff Sagarin Ratings, played the fifth-toughest schedule among the 124 FCS programs this year. The Mustangs' 11 foes this season are a combined 68-60 so far with Weber State, Sacramento State, Montana State, North Dakota and San Diego competing in the FCS playoffs and Oregon State playing at Oregon this weekend.
 
Cal Poly will say good-bye to 19 players — 14 seniors and a quintet of fourth-year juniors — as well as Walsh, who compiled a 59-66 record in 11 seasons with the Mustangs and 176-148 in 29 collegiate years as a head coach. Walsh, who arrived at Cal Poly in January 2009 after two seasons as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Army West Point, coached at Portland State for 14 seasons (1993-2006) and four campaigns at Sonoma State (1989-92).
 
Topping the list of Mustangs who have played their final game in a Mustang uniform are Koski, Humphrey, Whisenhunt, Nichols, Howell, defensive backs Sharky Reza and Kameron Dennis, linebackers Matt Wright and Nik Navarro and offensive linemen Paul Trujillo-Langdon and David Chellsen.
 
Shotwell led the Mustangs defense with 89 tackles, including 57 solo stops and 7.5 tackles for lost yardage, along with two interceptions and a pair of pass breakups. Humphrey was second with 73 tackles to go with one interception and five pass breakups.
 
Offensively, Hamler completed 57 percent of his passes (62 of 108) for 1,167 yards and 12 touchdowns, finishing first in the Big Sky in passing efficiency. The redshirt freshman also rushed for 522 yards and nine more scores.
 
Tran-Sampson, Drew Hernandez (399 rushing yards), Lepi Lataimua (274 yards), Dusty Frampton (132 yards) and Xavier Moore (105 yards) all return at the slot back or fullback positions next fall, as will wide receiver Quentin Harrison (17 catches, 362 yards, five touchdowns), who also averaged 19.5 yards on 17 kickoff returns.
 
Cal Poly finished the regular season ranked No. 5 in the nation (FCS) in receiving yards per reception (18.11) and fourth-down conversions (.741), No. 7 in interceptions thrown (5) and time of possession (33:26), No. 9 in rushing offense (254.5) and No. 25 in third-down conversions (.433). 
 
Individually, Colton Theaker is tied for No. 1 in PAT kicks percentage (100.0) while Tran-Sampson is No. 21 with his 1,037 rushing yards. Hamler is No. 46 in rushing touchdowns (9) and No. 54 in points responsible for (126) while Koski is No. 8 in yards per reception (20.67) and No. 44 in receiving yards per game (78.9). Matt Shotwell is 73rd with 8.1 tackles per game and No. 24 in solo tackles per game (5.2) while Quentin Harrison is No. 9 in yards per reception (21.29).
 
The Mustangs have won 65 of their last 94 home contests (70 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 107 of its last 194 games (56 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 24 of its last 58 and 43 of 96 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 19 years.
 
Cal Poly's 2020 schedule features the program's third game against a Pac-12 school as the Mustangs visit Cal on Sept. 12 along with other non-conference games at ULM and at home against San Diego and Big Sky games inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium versus UC Davis, Weber State, Idaho State and Northern Arizona. Cal Poly visits Montana, Montana State, Portland State and Sacramento State for conference games.
 
The 2020 season opens Sept. 5 at ULM (formerly Louisiana-Monroe), with the home opener against San Diego set for Sept. 19.
 
Photo above of wide receiver Quentin Harrison courtesy of Nathan Nybakke | Photography805.com