Before fall camp began in early August, Cal Poly head football coach Tim Walsh said with confidence the Mustangs would have a 100-tackle performer during the 2015 season. He just wasn’t sure who it would be.
Fifth-year senior Tu’uta Inoke made an early case to be the next in line in that category when he recorded a career-high 16 tackles and forced two fumbles during Cal Poly’s season-opening win against Montana last week.
The 6-foot-2, 248-pound linebacker spent the past three seasons learning from All-Americans Nick Dzubnar and Cameron Onkto while playing primarily on the outside. When Inoke’s chance to take over in the middle eventually came this offseason, he emerged as one of the leaders of the Mustangs’ new-look group of linebackers.
For his opening-week performance, College Sports Madness selected the Sacramento native as the Big Sky Conference and national defensive player of the week.
“With a big win like that, we’ve just got to keep the bus rolling,” said Inoke, a 2011 Luther Burbank High graduate. “Keep going and feed off that win.”
Facing Montana’s pass-heavy offense, Cal Poly relied on its 3-4 defensive front to get more speed on the field and limit big plays. Inoke started alongside senior Burton De Koning, junior Joseph Gigantino III and sophomore R.J. Mazolewski.
That group combined for 38 tackles, including three for lost yardage, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
“I knew we were going to start out with that (3-4) package,” said Mazolewski, who made his first college start against the Grizzlies. “But I didn’t know we were going to use it as much as we did. We ended up using it all game pretty much.”
Cal Poly’s 17-play drive to start the third quarter provided its defense an extended rest, and the Mustangs were able to keep Montana out of the end zone the entire second half.
Walsh said there weren’t many drastic adjustments made at halftime. He simply challenged the offense to find its rhythm, move the ball more consistently and earn successive first downs.
“Sometimes our rhythm might only by 3 and 4 yards, but 3 and 4 yards can get us first downs in the offense that we play,” Walsh said. “So I thought we did a good job of that and that took the ball out of their hands, which is one of our goals.”
Keeping Arizona State’s offense off the field will be a priority again Saturday night in Tempe. The Sun Devils were limited to 17 points and 291 yards during their season-opening loss to Texas A&M despite forcing three turnovers and possessing the ball longer than the Aggies.
“We always want to eliminate the big plays,” Inoke said. “Once the offense gets the big plays, then that’s when they get rolling.”