Tribune sports reporter Lucas Clark caught up with Parker Gabriel, Montana State beat reporter for the Bozeman Chronicle, earlier this week to discuss a series of topics leading up to the Mustangs’ 12:35 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Bobcats Stadium.
Lucas Clark: What were some of the main takeaways from last week’s shootout against Eastern Washington?
Parker Gabriel: Montana State’s defense needs to improve in a hurry. The Bobcats were coming off a bye and struggled to tackle — MSU head coach Rob Ash said the team did no live tackling during the 16-day break — but the struggles went much further. The defense had problems getting aligned, linebackers looked lost and communication issues plagued the secondary. Playing defense against Cal Poly demands discipline and the Bobcats didn’t show much against EWU. On offense, MSU didn’t pull many tricks out of the bag Sept. 3 against Fort Lewis College, but had its full arsenal on display against the Eagles. Dakota Prukop targeted 11 different receivers and found eight. He threw for 353 yards, but no receiver had more than 77. They can legitimately look to eight or nine players when in need of a big play.
L.C.: Junior quarterback Dakota Prukop is coming off a remarkable performance against the Eagles. Can he maintain that sort of pace for the remainder of the season?
P.G.: Prukop totaled 549 total yards of offense against Eastern Washington, breaking his previous best set last year when the Bobcats scored 77 against UC Davis. However, in the process of rushing for 196, he took 25 hits, according to offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. The staff would like to cut that number in half going forward. Prukop missed two full games last year after tearing his PCL, and clearly wasn’t 100 percent in MSU’s playoff loss to South Dakota State, so there’s a real focus on trying to keep him healthy for an entire season. The Bobcats would prefer Prukop doesn’t run the ball 28 times a game, but he’s a big play waiting to happen, and according to Cramsey, by far the best quarterback he’s ever coached.
L.C.: If things aren’t going well for Prukop — it doesn’t happen often — who can the Bobcats lean on to keep the ball moving offensively?
P.G.: Redshirt junior running back Chad Newell has established himself as the go-to option in a crowded backfield. At 225 pounds, he’s effective between the tackles — though he was stopped twice on fourth down in the first quarter against the Eagles — and is a reliable receiver, as well. He had seven catches to go with 15 carries against EWU and totaled 144 yards. Honorable mention: When the Bobcats need tough yards, they run the ball left. Senior tackle John Weidenaar has started 40 straight games and junior JP Flynn earned preseason All-American honors.
L.C.: Eastern Washington is obviously very talented offensively, but giving up 667 yards has to be somewhat concerning. Where does Montana State need to improve defensively?
P.G.: There are more than enough issues to go around when an offense puts up those kinds of numbers, but the concern has to start in the secondary. EWU quarterback Jordan West had twice as many touchdowns (six) as incompletions. MSU brought in senior safety Desman Carter from UAB after that program temporarily was shut down, but is sorely lacking in experience on the back end. The linebacking corps is young and talented — strong side linebacker Mac Bignell leads the team with 18 tackles (four for loss) in his first year as a starter — but got exposed against the Eagles. They were out of position at times and slow to the ball as EWU’s rushing attack accounted for nearly twice as many yards as it had in the first two games combined.
L.C.: What does Cal Poly need to do to win in Montana for the second time in four weeks?
P.G.: Use a recipe similar to the Mustangs’ win in Missoula, and one familiar to Cal Poly fans: Limit the number of possessions and don’t give up big plays. MSU’s been impressive in its ability to sustain drives — the final four touchdown marches against Eastern Washington were all at least eight plays and 60 yards — but the Bobcats would prefer to hit big plays and score fast. The Mustangs also have to get Prukop on the ground, either by tackling him or forcing him to slide. He’s a long strider with breakaway speed, but also makes defenders miss. He extended a fourth-and-10 play for eight seconds before throwing a 22-yard touchdown against the Eagles, and moved the chains numerous times by shaking a linebacker or safety in the open field. If the Mustangs can do those things and find a way to sprinkle in drives like the 17-play, 79-yard backbreaker in the fourth quarter of last year’s win over MSU, they’ll have a shot to sweep the Treasure State's top programs.
Parker Gabriel: Joe Protheroe had a few carries last year but has really burst onto the scene early on this season. What about his game fits the Poly offense and what’s made him so effective through three games?
Lucas Clark: Joe Protheroe has been a breakout star at a position that was somewhat of a question mark coming into the season. Cal Poly had to replace 900-yard rusher Brandon Howe, and Protheroe has made a seamless transition into that role. He loves to run north and south and has a big body capable of shouldering 20-plus carries per game. That makes him a great addition to a Mustangs’ backfield that returned two 1,000-yard rushers in Kori Garcia and Chris Brown. With defenses keying on those two, Protheroe has been able to make his living between the tackles.
P.G.: Cal Poly’s played a tough schedule so far (Montana, Arizona State, Northern Iowa). Is it clear how good this team is or how good it can be this year?
L.C.: Head coach Tim Walsh said before the season began this is the toughest schedule Cal Poly has played since he took over seven years ago. Beating a confident Montana team on the road Week 1 and staying even with Arizona State for the better part of three quarters showed what Cal Poly’s triple-option offense can do to opponents. That said, the Mustangs were humbled in the first quarter against Northern Iowa, which raced out to a 21-0 lead with relative ease. It’s tough to say where this team will end up eight weeks from now. Making the postseason is one of the Mustangs’ goals, and they’ll need to avoid big early deficits to keep the playoffs within reach.
P.G.: What’s the process been like trying to replace Nick Dzubnar on defense, and how has the unit played against a series of talented offenses?
L.C.: If you eliminate the first quarter miscues against Northern Iowa, the Cal Poly defense has certainly surpassed expectations through the first three games. No one player will replace the production of Nick Dzubnar, who set the school single-season record for tackles in 2014 with 167. When the Mustangs have been successful, they’ve kept the ball in front of the secondary to limit big plays and rallied to the ball. Linebackers Tu’uta Inoke, R.J. Mazolewski, Joseph Gigantino III and Burton De Koning have all been steady, but consistently containing Montana State’s Dakota Prukop might be their biggest challenge so far.
P.G.: Who’s a player that maybe doesn’t jump off of the stat sheet but Bobcats fans should keep an eye on Saturday?
L.C.: That’s a good question. It’s tough to pick one on offense because the triple option doesn’t exactly offer a lot of variety. That said, slotback DJ Peluso, a junior transfer from College of San Mateo, had his best game of the season last week against UNI. He’s a dynamic, tough player who I think will only become more involved as the season continues. Defensively, junior safety B.J. Nard is off to a great start. After missing four years with injuries, Nard had three interceptions in his first game back against Montana and has led Cal Poly in tackles each of the past two games.
P.G.: Most importantly, you sick of Montana yet? Two trips in the first month is a heavy workload.
L.C.: Ha! Well, I’m from Oregon so I really enjoyed my trip to Missoula earlier this month. I had never been and was pleasantly surprised. It reminded me a lot of home. We’re spoiled by the weather here in San Luis Obispo, so I’ll be a little more prepared for a cool breeze this time around.