Cal Poly, armed with 13 returning starters -- five on offense and eight on defense -- and ranked No. 23 in both the STATS media and FCS coaches preseason polls, opens its 2017 football season Saturday afternoon with a nationally televised non-conference Week Zero game against Patriot League member Colgate.
Kickoff for the first meeting between the two schools is set for 4:05 p.m. PDT. The game will be broadcast live on ESPNU (Paul Loeffler play-by-play and former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill serving as analyst) and streamed on Watch ESPN and ESPN3.com. ESPN Radio (1280 am) also will provide live coverage with Chris Sylvester (play-by-play) and Alex Clupper (analyst).
Cal Poly earned its fourth FCS playoff berth in 12 seasons last fall, finishing with a 7-5 mark and tied for fourth place with Southern Utah in the Big Sky. Colgate posted a 5-5 overall mark and placed third in the Patriot League at 4-2. A year earlier, the Raiders were 9-5, earned their eighth Patriot League title and made a playoff run that reached the quarterfinal round before a loss at Sam Houston State in 2015.
Saturday’s matchup, one of just four involving an FCS school along with one more on Sunday -- features the nation’s No. 1 team in rushing offense each of the last four years against last year’s top squad against the rush. Cal Poly averaged 343.5 yards per game on the ground in 2016 while Colgate surrendered just 69.4 yards a contest.
Under fourth-year head coach Dan Hunt, Colgate welcomed back 44 letter winners, including nine starters, to Fall Camp in late July. Heading the list of veterans is senior defensive end Pat Afriyie, the Buck Buchanan Award watch list member and Patriot League leader in sacks and tackles for lost yardage each of the last two seasons. Also returning are senior offensive lineman Ryan Paulish and a pair of defensive backs, junior Tyler Castillo and sophomore Abu Daramy. All four Raiders are members of the All-Patriot League Preseason Team.
Senior fullback Joe Protheroe headlines another strong group of ball carriers in Cal Poly’s Spread Triple Option. In becoming Cal Poly’s 20th 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, Protheroe amassed 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground and enters his final season as a Mustang No. 8 on the career rushing chart with 2,297 yards. Jared Mohamed, also a senior, also returns to back up Protheroe after collecting 343 yards in 2016. The group of slot backs features all-purpose player Kyle Lewis (591 rushing yards and six TDs, team-leading 22 catches for 375 yards and four scores in 2016).
While the Mustangs seem to be settled on junior Khaleel Jenkins -- who backed up Chris Brown in 2015 and Dano Graves in 2016 -- as their starting signal caller, Hunt has yet to decide who he will start when his squad visits the Golden State. A year ago, Sage Attwood backed up Jake Melville, who threw for 2,028 yards and rushed for 830 more. Attwood threw just two passes in 2016. Carmine Scarfone and Grant Breneman are challenging Attwood for the job as well. Breneman is a freshman while the sophomore Scarfone can make plays with his feet as well as his arm. Scarfone's athleticism keeps him in the hunt for the starting nod as well.
“Khaleel made extraordinary growth this year in practice,” said Walsh, “and at 6-2 and 214 pounds, he’s big for a quarterback and one of our best athletes. He needs game experience, no question about that, but our expectations are that he can run our offense. He is a good runner and an efficient thrower.”
Jenkins started one game in 2015 against Portland State and appeared in four games last season with one incomplete pass and one carry for two yards. "Jenkins is definitely ready to take over, from maturity, athletic and knowledge standpoints" said Walsh, "and he has higher expectations for himself.”
Two of last year’s five starting offensive linemen are back in junior left guard Harry Whitson and center Joey Kuperman -- the other three probable starters played all 12 games a year ago -- and the Mustangs’ wide receiving corps is led by sophomores J.J. Koski (18 catches in 2016) and Jake Smeltzer (five). Protheroe and Kuperman landed on the 2017 All-Big Sky Preseason Team.
On defense, Cal Poly returns all four starters in the secondary, but three of the four linebackers and one of the linemen need to be replaced. The good news is that Charlie Davis and R.J. Mazolewski, both of whom played in the first three games of 2016 before suffering season-ending injuries, are back and healthy. Anders Turner and Jayson Lee, who combined for five starts a year ago, return as well, and Mason Montgomery and Darren Adjei each played at least 11 games last fall.
The secondary features safeties B.J. Nard, Kitu Humphrey, Carter Nichols and Aaron Johnson and cornerbacks Dominic Frasch, Jerek Rosales, Kevin Griffin and Kam Dennis. All played at least 11 games in 2016. Nickel back Aaryn Bouzos, who also played all 12 games with two interceptions, returns as well.
Starters Jack Ferguson and Augustino Elisaia anchor the defensive front and the end spot features a battle between L.J. Mealancon and Miles Williams, both of whom played all 12 games in 2016.
The kicking game has both of last year’s kickers back -- Casey Sublette and Alex Vega. Sublette handled most of the chores in 2016, averaging 36.8 yards over 29 punts and making 54 of 56 PATs and all six field goal attempts. Vega, who punted 10 times for a 40.7 average, is best known for his 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in a 20-19 win over Montana in the 2015 opener.
Coached by Tim Walsh (ninth season, 50-42, UC Riverside ‘77), Cal Poly began its 98th season of football by winning six of its first eight games before losing three of its final four contests, including a 35-21 setback at the hands of San Diego in the opening round of the FCS playoffs, almost three months after a 38-16 triumph in Week Two.
Cal Poly was No. 1 in the FCS in rushing offense (309.1) in 2013, duplicated the feat in 2014 by averaging 351.8 yards on the ground, broke school and Big Sky records by averaging 387.3 yards per game on the ground in 2015 and topped all 121 FCS teams during the regular season again last fall with a 343.5-yard average.
Cal Poly, which captured the 2012 Big Sky title in its first year in the conference, was picked by head coaches and media this summer to finish fourth in the 13-team Big Sky. North Dakota and Eastern Washington shared the conference title in 2016 with 8-0 marks. North Dakota was ranked No. 1 by both the media and coaches to repeat this season, followed by Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona.
The Mustangs have won 60 of their last 78 home contests (77 percent) and, overall, Cal Poly has won 98 of its last 161 games (61 percent) going back to the 2002 finale and has won 20 of its last 40 and 39 of 79 on the road while producing 12 winning seasons in the last 16 years.
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.
Cal Poly plays the second of three non-conference games next Saturday at San Jose State. Kickoff in CEFCU Stadium is set for 4:30 p.m. PDT.