First Look

FIRST LOOK: Cal Poly hopes to bounce back against visiting Grizzlies


Bobby Hauck’s Grizzlies faced off against Cal Poly five times during the regular season in Hauck’s first seven-year stint at the head coach at Montana between 2003 and 2009. Back then, Cal Poly was an FCS independent coached by Rich Ellerson. In five meetings against Cal Poly, Hauck and Montana won all five, including beating the Mustangs three times when they were ranked in the Top 11 nationally. Hauck did lose once to the Mustangs, falling 35-21 in Missoula in the first round of the FCS playoffs in 2005.

Saturday, Hauck takes his newest version of the Griz— after eight years away, Hauck is back for his second stint at his alma mater — to play a Cal Poly team struggling to find its footing on the national level. The Mustangs are 1-3 after opening up their Big Sky Conference slate with a 70-17 loss at No. 6 Eastern Washington last week. Montana is 3-1 following last week’s 41-34 win over Sacramento State in Missoula.

After winning 54 games and leading the Mustangs to the FCS playoffs twice, Ellerson left CPU the year before Hauck left Montana, taking over at Army before the 2009 season. Tim Walsh, a longtime rival of Hauck’s during Walsh’s time as the head coach at Portland State, took over for Ellerson at Cal Poly in 2009 while Hauck left that same year for UNLV.

“They are running a bit different offense now (the triple option) but the core traits of good, hard-nosed football, toughness discipline, effort level, all those things that Tim’s teams play with, theses guys show,” Hauck said in his weekly news conference on Monday.

Walsh helped guide the Mustangs to a share of the Big Sky Conference title in 2012, the school’s first year in the league. Injuries to quarterback Chris Brown derailed potential playoff pushes in 2014 and 2015 before quarterback Dano Graves brought the Mustangs back to the postseason in 2016.

Last season, a rash of injuries derailed the Mustangs, sparking a 1-10 finish. This year, the season got off to a similarly difficult start as quarterback Khaleel Jenkins suffered an injury early in CPU’s 49-3 loss at No. 1 North Dakota State. A non-conference loss to No. 7 Weber State (24-17) and a 44-15 win over Brown of the Ivy League wrapped up Cal Poly’s non-conference schedule.

Location: San Luis Obispo, California

Nickname: Mustangs

Enrollment: 21,306

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.

Alumni: Al Yankovic, parody musician; Ozzie Smith, shortstop; Chuck Liddell, UFC fighter; John Madden, retired football coach and broadcaster.

The Coach

Tim Walsh (10th year at Poly, 52-55 with the Mustangs) — Walsh is a Big Sky icon, having coached Portland State from 1993 to 2006 and guiding the Vikings through their transition from Division II to the FCS. He finished 65-47 in those years at Portland State and, although he never won a Big Sky title, had some solid teams. Portland State finished second in the Big Sky four times in 11 years under Walsh and third two more times. He left the Vikings and was an assistant coach at Army for a few years before returning West to coach Poly, then in the Great West Conference, in 2009. The Mustangs moved to the Big Sky in 2012, winning the conference that first year and losing in the second round of the playoffs.

Walsh went to Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, and UC Riverside, where he was a backup quarterback. He started his coaching career at Serra in 1977 as an assistant before moving up to be the head coach at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, California. He broke through to the college game as the defensive coordinator for UC Santa Clara in 1986 before being named head coach at Sonoma State in 1989. He was with the Cossacks for four years before replacing Pokey Allen at Portland State in 1993. Walsh’s Cal Poly teams are famous for their triple-option offense.

Offense-Players to Watch

Joe Protheroe, FB (Sr., 5-11, 230) — Protheroe might have been the first opposing player mentioned by name by Montana coach Bobby Hauck at one of his weekly press conferences. That should give a good idea of the respect the Poly running back has around the league. Protheroe is a legitimate Big Sky legend after making first-team all-conference in 2015 and 2016 as a sophomore and junior, respectively. The latter of those campaigns was a monster 1,334-yard, 13-touchdown year that saw him also named first-team All-America by STATS FCS.

Protheroe ran for 139 yards in the first game of 2017 but was hurt in the first half of the second contest, ending his season and forcing him to take a medical redshirt. After a slow start to this year, Protheroe has been his old self recently, running for 228 yards on a jaw-dropping 43 carries against Brown and then 176 on 34 against Eastern Washington. He’s a fullback with tailback skills, which makes him one of the more complete running backs in the FCS and the linchpin of Poly’s triple-option offense. Montana knows who he is, and the Griz know he’s going to get 35 carries. Limiting the damage from those will be crucial.

Khaleel Jenkins, QB (Sr., 6-2, 215) — Jenkins was also hurt for much of last year as Poly fell to a 1-10 record. When healthy, the senior is a good triggerman for the triple-option offense. He can throw it when he has to — he threw for four scores last year against Northern Iowa to drag Poly to a near comeback win — but make no mistake, Jenkins’ role is to make to the right decision on whether to hand the ball off or run it himself.

Jenkins, like several Montana players, is from San Diego, in his case Francis Parker High School. He ran for 377 yards and four touchdowns in seven games last year, and has 146 in three games this year. Despite playing in at least one game every year since he was a true freshman, Jenkins has only played in 17 total games over four years for the Mustangs. If he wants to make a mark on the program, it will have to come this year.

Defense-Players to Watch

Kitu Humphrey, S (Jr., 5-10, 195) — Humphrey is from Long Beach Poly in Los Angeles, the same high school as Montana’s Calhoun twins. Beginning as a redshirt freshman, he’s started 26 of a possible 27 games at safety for the Mustangs. After recording 46 tackles in 2016 and 48 in 2017, he’s stepped up his production this year, with 24 tackles already in four games.

He’s also broken up six passes, tied for third in the Big Sky. After facing Sac State’s Mister Harriel last week, the Montana offense will have to go head-to-head with another all-conference caliber safety.

Nik Navarro, LB (Jr., 6-1, 238) — Navarro has burst on the scene this year after starting just one game and recording eight total tackles all of last year. The junior from Fontana, California, was a bright spot in a season-opening loss against North Dakota State with eight tackles, two for loss. He picked up another two tackles for loss the next week against Weber State.

Currently, he’s second on the team with 33 tackles through four games and leads the Mustangs with five total tackles for loss. That number is tied for 10th among all Big Sky players. He’s also forced a fumble and broken up a pass.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or Cal Poly Athletics. All Rights Reserved. 

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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