BOZEMAN, Montana — The rise in technology and the fevered interest in college football have combined to make the strategic elements of the game more intricate all the time.
So many teams run so many concepts on both sides of the ball, it sometimes seems like everyone runs everything when it comes to scheme. By and large, that’s true, although modern teams still have strengths and tendencies.
In the Big Sky Conference, one week you might have to prepare to face Northern Arizona’s run-pass option offense led by All-American deep ball throwing extraordinaire Case Cookus and the next week you might play Weber State’s physically demanding squad.
This makes Cal Poly an anomaly. Montana State just dispatched of Cookus and the Lumberjacks last week. Now MSU has to scrap any carryover from that defensive game plan to prepare for the devastating triple option of the Mustangs.
While prepping for a triple option team the week after playing a team that threw the ball down the field like NAU and a week before playing Sac State’s wild spread style is certainly a unique challenge, there’s no secrecy behind what Cal Poly is going to do.
The Mustangs are going to punch and counter punch and try to run the ball right down the throats of their prospective opponents.
“It’s not going to be a mystery. At all,” Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said on Monday. “We have to stay disciplined and stop it, it doesn’t really matter how well you defend it. At some point in time, they’re going to create plays. That’s just what they do.
“The nature of being a system offense like the triple option, it’s really about counter punching, and I think they do an excellent job of that. They’ve been doing it a long time.
“I think it’s all about what you do to limit them in the run and make them predictable, because they’re not like any other offense,” Choate said. “Any other offense get a second extra long, or a third extra long, there’s going to throw the ball a little bit, because they know it’s low percentage for them to get 8,10, 12 yards on a run play. Getting any option team off schedule is important, because it takes away the little element of surprise.”
Montana State’s defense has been banged up so far this year on the second level and back end. All-American all-purpose player Troy Andersen has played limited reps for most of the campaign. Senior cornerback Greg “Munchie” Filer III has not played yet this season after entering the campaign as a preseason All-Big Sky selection. Senior linebacker Josh Hill and junior linebacker Chad Kanow are still making their way back to 100 percent following injuries last season. Sophomore Ty Okada, who emerged as a backup safety during fall camp and started toward the end of last season as MSU’s primary nickel back, is also yet to play in a game this season.
The cut blocks in the trenches, the misdirection and the physical style of Cal Poly’s rushing attack means most Bobcat defenders will be exposed. It’s not part of MSU’s mindset entering its first trip to San Luis Obispo, California of Choate’s tenure.
Don’t care. It is what it is, I’m not going to let them care either. Promise you that,” Choate said. “That’s going to be the whole thing. It’s a different style. They’ve kind of modified some of the cutting rules. I still think there’s a lot of places they can go with it. I’m sure Coach Walsh feels the opposite way. It is what it is. It doesn’t matter if you have to defend Case Cookus and these vertical routes or this is what they are going to do to you in the run game. It’s all equally dangerous.
“We have to go down there and be ready physically.”
Location: San Luis Obispo, California
Enrollment: 21,037 undergraduates with an endowment of $220.5 million.
Founded: Cal Poly was founded in 1901 thanks to the California Polytechnic School Bill. The school is widely considered one of the top polytechnic, engineering and architecture schools in the United States.
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.
In six home games last season, Cal Poly averaged 6,529 fans. The Mustangs have not played a home game in a month. CP drew 5,779 fans for its season-opening 52-34 win over San Diego.
Alumni: Al Yankovic, parody musician; Ozzie Smith, shortstop; Chuck Liddell, UFC fighter; John Madden, retired football coach and broadcaster.
Tim Walsh (11th year at Poly, 58-62 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 for an assistant coaching job 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.
The Mustangs have advanced to the FCS playoffs twice (2012, 2016) twice under Walsh. Last season, Cal Poly bounced back from a 1-10 year to finish 5-6, including a 4-4 mark in league play. This season, Cal Poly is 2-2 with wins over San Diego and last week, 24-21, over Southern Utah to begin league play. Cal Poly lost 41-24 at No. 7 Weber State in a non-conference game between league foes. And CP fell 45-7 at Oregon State.
In his career, Walsh is 174-142, including 70-67 in Big Sky tilts. For the past eight seasons, Walsh has remained competitive (30-26 in league play) by staying true to his dedication to the triple option. Every team in the league knows what they are getting when they play the Mustangs, including Montana State this week.
“It’s like the option bible,” Choate said. “’Go to page 36.’ They flip to page 36 and the guys know the answers to the tests already. That’s the hard part about it, that’s why teams do it. That’s why high academic institutions, the service academies, they may not go out and get these 6-foot-4, 315-pound athletic offensive linemen, so they create their own advantage by outflanking people an adding numbers to a side with motions and unbalanced sets. And making you defend all of this stuff that you normally don’t see.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH — The Offense
Jalen Hamler, quarterback, 6-1, 195, redshirt freshman — During his two years as the starting quarterback at Lawndale High, Hamler was impressive and productive after taking over for a quarterback Montana State is very familiar with: Chris Murray.
“I like their new quarter back,” Choate said. “I think they have a new added element.
“Last week is not really indicative I think of who they are because the wind at Southern Utah, I mean try watching the end zone version of this film. I don’t think I would have wanted to have been up in that scissor lift down there. I mean it’s crazy, feel like you’re getting seasick watching the end zone view. I think (Cal Poly) only threw for 55 yards last week, but I don’t think that’s indicative of where they are at offensively. Because I do think they have a more explosive passing game.”
During his two years at Lawndale, Hamler combined to throw for 4,372 yards and 49 touchdowns against just six interceptions and also rushed for, 1,437 yards and 21 scores.
After redshirting last season while senior Khaleel Jenkins operated Cal Poly’s triple option, Hamler is the trigger man as a redshirt freshman. In his college debut against San Diego, he completed 8-of-11 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns in a decisive win. He also rushed 17 times for 96 yards and two more scores to earn Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors.
He has averaged just 2.4 yards per carry on 60 rushes (for 145 yards) since then but he’s scored three more touchdowns. He’s also lost three fumbles and coughed the ball up four total times.
Overall this season, he is completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 528 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He’s rushed for 241 yards and five scores for a Cal Poly team rushing for 257.8 yards per game.
Duy Tran-Simpson, fullback, 6-2, 215, sophomore — Joe Protheroe was one of the great ball carriers in the history of the Big Sky Conference. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound iron man carried the ball an unholy 861 times in his Cal Poly career, amassing 4,271 yards and scoring 35 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,810 yards on 363 carries and scored 13 touchdowns to cap his brilliant career.
“We do not have to defend Joe Protheroe. That’s good news. Bad news is they’re clones, (Tran-Simpson) and him,” Choate said. “They have No. 22 (Tran-Simpson), a much faster version, not quite as big as Joe, but he’s a guy they will run load speed option, with the fullback, you don’t see that a lot. That tells you the speed this kid has to get to the perimeter.”
After rushing for 5,054 yards and 41 touchdowns in three varsity seasons, including 1,860 yards and 15 scores as a senior at Claremont (California) High, Tran-Simpson has waited his turn. He only carried the ball one time last season. So far this season, he has rushed 73 times for 398 yards and a pair of touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 99.5 yards per game.
“There are some positions in our offense that are difficult to recruit to. That’s one that is not,” Walsh said. “We recruit big tailbacks out of high school. These are high school backs like Joe who were getting the ball 30 or 35 times in high school and wanted to do the same thing in college.
“Duy is getting the opportunity now but there’s also guys behind him. Over the years with Joe, we were able to stockpile talent.”
J.J. Koski, wide receiver, 6-1, 195, senior — Koski has been able to produce despite Call Poly’s penchant to pound the rock. Over the previuos three seasons, Koski caught 79 passes for 1,443 yards (18.2 yards per catch) and scored 10 touchdowns. Last season, he caught 33 passes for 666 yards (20.2 yards per catch) and scored four toucdhowns.
With the emergence of Hamler, Koski looks primed for an even better season. He already has 17 catches (career-high 4.3 per game) for 374 yards and a pair of scores. He is averaging 22 yards per catch and 93.5 yards per game.
One of the things I really notice is I think they are more willing to push the ball down the field vertically. San Diego tried to go all in and pack the box and take care of it. They got exploited.”
Koski caught five passes for 154 yards and two scores in that game. The following week, he had six catches for 104 yards. He currently ranks third in the league in receiving yards for a team that has thrown 43 times in four games.
“Those secondary guys, you can get lulled to sleep,” Choate said. “You just have to be so disciplined with your eyes and let everything play out because the second you fall asleep, they will find that guy on the edge, hit the post, hit the vertical route. Those are the ones that kill you. You give an option offense explosive plays, that’s tough.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH – The Defense
Matt Shotwell, linebacker, 6-0, 230, junior — Montana State rushed for 430 yards and averaged nearly 10 yards per carry in a 49-42 victory over the Mustangs last season in Bozeman. Isaiah Ifanse went for 227 yards and three touchdowns, each career highs for the true freshman.
That afternoon, Montana State exploited the line twists Cal Poly uses up front, instead using its gap scheme execution to gash the Mustangs. That unit also featured an array of young players and issues at linebacker.
Cal Poly has always been able to recruit and develop linebackers under Walsh. Nick Dzubnar still plays for the San Diego Chargers. Cameron Ontko played a few seasons in the Canadian Football League. Johnny Millard spent a stint with the Houston Texans. Josh Letuligasenoa had a cup of coffee with the Green Bay Packers.
And if Shotwell can live up to his family name, he has a chance to be the next great Cal Poly linebacker. The tradition goes farther back than Walsh. During Rich Ellerson’s days leading the Mustangs. Between 2004 and 2006, three straight Cal Poly linebackers — Jordan Beck, Chris Gocong and Kyle Shotwell — won the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS.
Matt Shotwell is the younger of four Shotwell brothers. Kyle is the oldest. Ryan and Troy Shotwell also played at Cal Poly.
In 2016, Matt Shotwell was the Cal Polly Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year. Two years later, he broke into the starting line up. The only game he missed last season was against Montana State. He finished with 90 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. He was an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection.
This season, Shotwell leads the Mustangs with 34 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. He also has an interception and a forced fumble for a defense that is still giving up 32 points and 454 yards per game against FCS competition.
“I describe them as a multiple, attacking style,” Choate said when describing Cal Poly’s defense overall. “They are not a crazy blitz percentage. It’s pretty normal, about 30 percent pressure. Give you about four different coverage looks. The thing that concerns you the most is their corner pressure. That’s always a tough one to pick up. That’s going to be something we have to pay attention to. I think their linebacker play has improved over a year ago. I think last year that was an issue for them.
Kitu Humphrey, safety, 5-10, 195, senior — Humphrey is one of the mostexperienced secondary players in the Big Sky Conference and in the country. He enters Saturday with 36 career starts and 38 career games played.
Humprhey has 185 career tackles, including 13 tackles for loss and four sacks. He has 24 tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss this season. He has intercepted three passes but none since 2017.
Myles Cecil, defensive end, 6-3, 278, sophomore — After starting seven games and notching 39 tackles as a redshirt freshman (four tackles for loss), Cecil has been one of Cal Poly’s most productive players in the front seven so far this season.
He currently has one of Cal Poly’s three sacks this season to go with 19 tackles. Cecil piled up 90 tackles, 12.5 quarterback sacks and 22 quarterback hurries his senior year at La Salle High in Southern California.
Photo by Brooks Nuanez or courtesy of Cal Poly Athletics. All Rights Reserved.