After the first two weeks of Big Sky play, it looked like the Mustangs might be in for another long season.
On the heels of a one-win campaign in which the only victory came against Portland State, Cal Poly suffered a 70-17 loss at Eastern Washington top open the conference season this fall. The following week, fumbles plagued the Mustangs again as Montana ran roughshod to a 48-28 victory in San Luis Obispo, California.
At that point the Mustangs were 0-2 in league play, 1-4 overall and losers of 15 of their last 17 games dating back to a 35-21 home loss to San Diego in the first round of the 2016 FCS playoffs. But Cal Poly bulldozed Sacramento State the first Saturday of October, rushing for 462 yards and averaging 6.6 yards per carry with its pulverizing triple option on the way to a 41-27 victory.
Cal Poly fumbled four times and lost two of the miscues in a 52-10 loss to rival UC Davis in the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe coming out of its bye week. But last week, Cal Poly got back on track, rushing for 343 yards, including 217 by All-American fullback Joe Protheroe en rout to a 38-28 win over Northern Arizona.
“I think this is a team that is playing its best football right now,” Choate said. “I think Cal Poly is really on a roll. Offensively, I mean shoot, you look at that NAU game, I think there was five consecutive drives where they went down and scored.”
Entering Saturday’s game at Montana State, all of a sudden, the Mustangs have an identical record to the Bobcats, who sit at 2-3 in league play after a 24-17 loss to Idaho State last week. Cal Poly is 3-5 overall, a game back of its 4-4 hosts.
Cal Poly leads the conference by a wide margin in rushing yards per game, averaging 323.6 yards per game, nearly 80 more than second-place Eastern Washington. With senior quarterback Khaleel Jenkins back as the triggerman after missing 2017 with a torn ACL and Protheroe back for his final year as the battering ram dive back, the Mustangs have rushed for 1,899 yards and 14 touchdowns in Big Sky play alone, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and nearly 380 yards per game. Cal Poly rushed for more than 400 yards against Montana (412) and Sac State so far this season.
Montana State’s defense has been good against the run, giving up 180 yards per game so far this season despite playing long stretches because of an offense that has largely struggled to move the ball but took a step last week against Idaho State with 20 first downs and more than 33 minutes of possession.
MSU has not played Cal Poly during Choate’s three seasons at the helm. The only time a Choate-led Bobcat team has played a triple option team came last season when the Bobcats lost 16-14 to Kennesaw State, an eventual FCS playoffs quarterfinal qualifier, in Bozeman last October.
Montana State rallied from a 24-7 hole but lost by a touchdown at Idaho State, MSU’s second straight loss. The Bobcats missed two field goals and had a fake punt pass wide open but did not convert.
“The story line for us was missed opportunities, whether it was the missed field goals or…at one point we had a 14-play, 94-yard drive where we took the ball down to the 4-yard line, were penalized for an illegal shift, went backward on that, got a procedure penalty on the next play, didn’t convert on third down and missed the field goal,” Choate said. “You have an opportunity to go first and goal from the 4-yard line and you end up missing a field goal three plays later, that’s what I mean by those missed opportunities. Just really frustrating whether that was dropped passes or opportunities to blow the game open.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or Cal Poly Athletics. All Rights Reserved.