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FIRST LOOK: Griz open Big Sky slate at home against Cal Poly

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The Montana Grizzlies are ranked among the top national title contenders for the first time in a decade as they start their Big Sky Conference schedule Saturday by hosting Cal Poly for Homecoming.

For a game that doesn’t seem likely to have much intrigue on the field — Montana is 2-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country; the Mustangs are 1-2 with a point differential of minus-76 and the lone victory a 27-14 win over a San Diego team that gave up 105 points over the last two weeks in losses to UC Davis and Montana State — there are some interesting narratives outside the lines.

The Mustangs are one of just three teams in the conference with a new head coach this fall, as former Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin replaced Tim Walsh following the 2019 campaign when Walsh retired.

Baldwin was the last head coach to win a national title in the Big Sky when he led Eastern Washington to the championship in 2010. By hiring him, Cal Poly is trusting in proven Big Sky coaching to turn its program around, much as Montana did when it hired Hauck in 2018 (although the Grizzlies were never as far down as the Mustangs, who won a combined nine games in Walsh’s final three year after making the playoffs three times prior since CP joined the Big Sky in 2012.

With the change comes a switch from a unique triple-option offense that both Walsh and predecessor Ralph Ellerson employed to Baldwin’s spread passing attack. The transition has predictably been tough for the Mustangs, who went 0-3 before throwing in the towel on the 2021 spring season and are averaging just over 17 points per game so far in the fall.

QUICKS HITS

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.

THE COACH

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 and 2013. 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 one of the league’s sorriest programs. Since jumping to the b xx

THE OFFENSE — PLAYERS TO WATCH

KAHLIQ PAULETTE, QUARTERBACK, 6-1, 175, FRESHMAN

Cal transfer Spencer Brasch is injured, so Paulette is listed as the starter on the depth chart this week for the Mustangs.

The grayshirt freshman from Converse, Texas, 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.

Paulette has completed 10 of 27 passes for 121 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in his short college career.

CHRIS COLEMAN, WIDE RECEIVER, 5-11, 186, GRAD STUDENT

Cal Poly’s leading rusher has just 65 yards in three games, but the Mustangs have three receivers over 100 yards and another at 98.

Coleman has been the best of the bunch, with a team-high 12 catches for 165 yards.

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.

THE DEFENSE — PLAYERS TO WATCH

MATT SHOTWELL, LINEBACKER, 6-0, 230, RS SENIOR

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 30 stops through three games, 10 more than any other Mustang.

ELIJAH PONDER, DEFENSIVE LINEMAN, 6-3, 200, RS FRESHMAN

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’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 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.