Cal Poly

Three things to watch as Cal Poly football seeks win No. 1 in Big Sky opener vs. NAU

Northern Iowa’s Hezekiah Applegate, left, sacks Cal Poly quarterback Khaleel Jenkins during the second half of Saturday’s game in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Northern Iowa’s Hezekiah Applegate, left, sacks Cal Poly quarterback Khaleel Jenkins during the second half of Saturday’s game in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Associated Press

The numbers aren’t pretty for Cal Poly when it comes to its all-time series record against Northern Arizona. Northern Arizona has 10 wins and just one loss in 11 meetings.

But the games have been close the past three times, with Cal Poly’s one-and-only win against the Lumberjacks coming in 2012. The two teams will meet for the 12th time Saturday at Alex G. Spano Stadium, and both teams will be looking for their first win of the 2017 season in the Big Sky Conference opener.

Here are three things to watch for that could have a major impact Saturday night.

Can Jenkins Continue Upward Trend?

Junior quarterback Khaleel Jenkins had the best game of his Cal Poly career two weeks ago in a road loss to Northern Iowa — by most measurements. Jenkins had career highs in passing yards (238), touchdown passes (4), completions (9) and completion percentage (9 of 16 for 56.3%). He also set a personal-best mark with 102 rushing yards to go along with a rushing touchdown.

He led Cal Poly to two touchdowns in the final 2:05 to force overtime against Northern Iowa.

But Jenkins also had two crucial mistakes that marred an otherwise brilliant performance.

Two pitches resulted in fumbles early in the game; one was returned for a touchdown, and Cal Poly eventually lost 45-38 in overtime.

“Sometimes, it’s those two negatives that stick out,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “He has to understand that he can’t do that, and I think he does.”

Still, with Jenkins hitting on big plays and emerging as a run threat, Cal Poly (0-3, 0-0 Big Sky) had its best offensive game of the season, racking up 543 total yards. First-year offensive coordinator Jim Craft seemed to find his stride with a nice mix of play calling, and he showed confidence in Jenkins’ deep-ball ability. It will be interesting to see if Craft continues to dial up the deep ball or if Cal Poly will revert to its power run game against an NAU team that gave up 417 yards of offense to Western Illinois last week.

Walsh did mention that NAU (0-2, 0-0 Big Sky) is coming off a bye week and has had extra time to prepare for the Mustangs’ spread triple option. That could lead to a sluggish start for the Mustangs’ offense, something that has hurt them so far this season.

“We never know what a team is going to do on defense, but you give them a bye week to prepare, that’s advantage them,” Walsh said. “They could do something completely different because they have had two weeks to work on it.”

Secondary Play

The Cal Poly secondary has done a pretty good job limiting pass offenses this season, allowing 210 yards through the air per game, but the Mustangs will face a tough test against NAU.

“Their wideouts are legit, and then Case Cookus is a legitimate NFL-type quarterback,” Walsh said.

Cookus, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound sophomore from Thousand Oaks, has thrown for 527 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games. His top target this season has been the speedy Elijah Marks, who has 10 catches for 156 yards.

NAU’s 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, the second leading receiver on the team and a solid NFL prospect, is expected to miss the game with a shoulder injury.

Meanwhile, Cal Poly defensive backs Kam Dennis and Dominic Frasch will start after suffering injuries against Northern Iowa. The only Cal Poly player sure to miss Saturday’s game is senior fullback Joe Protheroe, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a loss to San Jose State.

“If we contain the quarterback and tackle a little better, we have been playing really good defense,” Walsh said.

Jonathan Baldwin Returns Home

With Butler out, look for Cookus to target a name familiar to Central Coast football fans — junior tight end Jonathan Baldwin.

Baldwin is a Paso Robles High School graduate and was part of a stacked Bearcats team that won a CIF-Southern Section Northern Division title in 2014.

“I am really happy it happened as I’m starting now,” Baldwin told the Arizona Daily Sun this week. “I get the opportunity to show fans that I am actually playing.”

Baldwin has caught three passes for 67 yards and a touchdown in the first two games of the season.

Cal Poly (0-3, 0-0 Big Sky) vs. Northern Arizona (0-2, 0-0)

When: 6:05 p.m. Saturday

Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium, San Luis Obispo

On the air: 1280 AM (5:30 p.m.), Eleven Sports (DirecTV channel 623, Charter SD 346, HD 879),