First Look

FIRST LOOK: Bobcats host Cal Poly for fourth home game in six outings


BOZEMAN, Montana — The biggest question mark entering the 2021 season for a Montana State program trying to harness the momentum of its first run to the FCS Final Four in 35 years started and ended with a coaching change.

As the first season of Bobcat football under the direction of Brent Vigen begins its second half, all returns are solid. The Bobcats enter Saturday’s game against struggling Cal Poly with a 4-1 mark and on a four-game winning streak. Barring fully unforeseen circumstances, MSU will move to 5-1 this year, including 3-0 in Big Sky Conference play, which road trips to No. 19 Weber State (October 15), No. 4 Eastern Washington (November 6) and No. 6 Montana (November 20) looming.

The Mustangs are 1-4 as they head to Bozeman, the lone win, a 27-14 triumph over San Diego, coming the first week of the season. The Bobcats defeated those same Toreros 52-10 two weeks later. The Mustangs also have losses at Fresno State (63-10), to South Dakota at home (48-14), at Montana to open Big Sky Conference play (39-7) and last week at home to reigning Big Sky champion Weber State, 38-7

Their losses they’ve played pretty good teams, they played a pretty good schedule this point,” Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said on Monday.

“Cal Poly to me had been a real consistent program. When I was at North Dakota State we played them and had some real drag outs going back and that’s a while back but they had been a real consistent program that could recruit good athletes, very smart athletes.”


Former Cal Poly running back Joe Protheroe, shown here against Idaho State in 2018, thrived in the Mustangs’ triple-option offense under Tim Walsh. Photo by Owen Main.

Location: San Luis Obispo,  California

Nickname: Mustangs

Enrollment: 22,287

Founded: Cal Poly was founded in 1901 thanks to the California Polytechnic School Bill.

Stadium: Alex G. Spanos Stadium holds 11,075. It originally opened in 1935. In 2006, it was expanded and named after Spanos, Cal Poly alum and owner of the Los Angeles Chargers. The men’s and women’s soccer teams at Cal Poly also play there, meaning it hosts one of the biggest rivalries in college soccer: Poly vs. UC Santa Barbara.

Famous Alumni: Al Yankovic, parody musician; Ozzie Smith, shortstop; Chuck Liddell, mixed martial artist; John Madden, football coach, broadcaster and video game mogul.


Beau Baldwin (First year at Cal Poly, 1-5 with the Mustangs, 96-40 overall)

Former Eastern Washington and current Cal Poly head coach Beau Baldwin/ by Brooks Nuanez

Baldwin played quarterback at Central Washington, backing up former NFLer Jon Kitna for his last two seasons, before bouncing back and forth between his alma mater and Eastern Washington to begin his coaching career. He was quarterbacks coach first at Central and then at Eastern Washington before taking the head job at CWU in 2007 and moving to the same job at Eastern one year later (he replaced Paul Wulff, who’s now coaching offensive line at Cal Poly).

With Hauck moving from Montana to UNLV after the 2009 season, Baldwin’s Eagles became the new power in the Big Sky, winning the national title in 2010 and making semifinal trips in 2012, 2013 and 2016.

Baldwin’s Eastern Washington teams were marked by explosive offenses. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell won the Walter Payton Award in 2011 even though the Eagles finished 6-5, tied for Baldwin’s worst record at EWU. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp won the award in 2015 (ironically, in another 6-5 year) to cap a record-setting career.

Baldwin made the jump to the FBS in 2017, taking a spot on new head coach Justin Wilcox as offensive coordinator at Cal. The Bears averaged nearly 28 points per game in 2017, his first year, but fell to around 21 in 2018 and 2019, and Baldwin returned to the Big Sky as Cal Poly’s head coach after the 2019 season.

He’s a certified legend in the Big Sky coaching ranks, but now faces the challenge of turning around a once proud program that has won 10 total games following its last FCS playoff berth in 2016.


All the quarterbacks

Montana linebacker Marcus Welnel smashes Cal Poly quarterback Conor Bruce during Saturday’s 39-7 Griz win/ by Blake Hempstead

Cal transfer Spencer Brasch is injured, so Paulette is listed as the starter on the depth chart this week for the Mustangs. But Conor Bruce started in a 39-7 loss at Montana. And Jackson Pavitt threw for 84 yards in a 38-7 home loss to Weber State last week.

Paulette, a grayshirt freshman from Converse, Texas, is listed with an OR with both Brasch and Bruce this week heading to Bozeman. Paulette replaced Brasch late in a blowout loss against Fresno State and then played the whole way the following week in a loss to South Dakota. Bruce threw for 183 yards against Montana while Paulette threw for 100 yards.

Who plays quarterback in Bozeman on Saturday is anybody’s guess.


Cal Poly’s leading rusher has just 65 yards in three games, but the Mustangs have four receivers over 100 yards.

Coleman has been the best of the bunch, with a team-high 18 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns.

From Bakersfield, California, Coleman played at Nevada and Fresno State before ending up in San Luis Obispo. He also has experience on offense and defense, playing both wide receiver and cornerback for Fresno State in 2019 before switching back to receiver for the Bulldogs in 2020.



Matt Shotwell

Shotwell, the youngest of four brothers to play defense for Cal Poly (oldest brother Kyle won the Buck Buchanan Award in 2006), has been the Mustangs’ best linebacker since his redshirt sophomore year in 2018, when he led the team with 90 tackles.

He had 89 more in 2019 and 34 in Poly’s abbreviated spring 2021 season, leading the team all three years.

He’s well on his way to doing that again in 2021, with a team-best 47 stops through five games, nearly 20 more than any other Mustang.


So far, Ponder’s been the player coming up with big plays when Cal Poly’s defense has been able to make any.

He returned an interception 75 yards for a touchdown in the Mustangs’ season-opening win over San Diego.

What should scare Montana State’s offense more is his performance last week against South Dakota, when he had three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and two other quarterback hits even though the Coyotes torched Poly in a 48-14 win.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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