Drawing on the success of its first trip to Montana four weeks ago, the Cal Poly football team returns to the Treasure State eager to play the role of spoiler once again.
The 20th-ranked Mustangs open Big Sky Conference play at 12:35 p.m. Saturday against No. 14 Montana State, where a crowd of more than 17,000 will likely be in attendance at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Mont.
Cal Poly (1-2) turned in its best all-around performance of the season during a Week 1 upset of Montana in Missoula. But the Mustangs have since lost consecutive games to Arizona State and Northern Iowa, each by two touchdowns.
“We started back at the drawing board this week,” all-conference defensive tackle Marcus Paige-Allen said. “We kind of needed that wake-up call just to recognize that we don’t need to take this for granted. We need to make sure we’re on top of everything and everybody’s picked up their energy.”
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The Bobcats (1-1) are coming off a 55-50 loss at Eastern Washington last week, a game in which junior quarterback Dakota Prukop produced 529 yards of offense and accounted for five touchdowns.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Prukop will be one of the main focuses of Cal Poly’s defense. He leads the Big Sky in both rushing yards and total offense per game, and is surrounded by talented playmakers in running back Chad Newell and wide receivers Mitch Griebel and Mitchell Herbert.
Seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh said he believes Prukop “is the real deal” and should be considered a contender for the Walter Payton Award.
The Bobcats’ zone-read option fits Prukop’s skill set well, which makes Montana State one of the toughest offenses to defend in the conference, Walsh said.
“It’s a different year and he’s grown up some more and I’m sure he’s gotten better and gotten smarter and gotten a little faster,” Pagie-Allen said. “So we’re going to have to make sure that we’ve done the same as a defense.”
The Mustangs have won eight consecutive games against the Bobcats, including last year’s 35-27 victory in San Luis Obispo. That game was the first time the two teams have played during Walsh’s tenure, improving his overall record against Montana State to 7-5.
Walsh wasn’t ready to make many assumptions about a Bobcats defense that allowed nearly
670 yards against the three-time defending Big Sky champion Eagles a week ago.
Montana State safety Bryson McCage was injured against Eastern Washington and will be sidelined Saturday. In his place, Khari Garcia returns from suspension and cornerbacks Braelen Evans and Zach Stern are expected to be available after recovering from injuries as well.
Blocking on the perimeter was an area of concern following Cal Poly’s loss to Northern Iowa. That made life difficult for preseason All-American and 1,000-yard rusher Kori Garcia, who has been held to 3 yards per carry on 36 attempts this season.
“I can think just off the top of my head four or five plays that would’ve been long touchdowns (against Northern Iowa),” Walsh said. “Which is an element we need to have in our offense and we’re not getting it.”
One week removed from losing senior cornerback Chris Fletcher to a season-ending leg injury, Cal Poly learned it would be without junior slotback Elias Stokes for the remainder of the year after he broke his arm against Northern Iowa.
Walsh said the Mustangs are “banged up a lot” this week, perhaps alluding to an arm injury Garcia played through last week.
Redshirt freshmen Malcolm Davis and Alex Suchesk will see their roles increase, and senior wide receiver Willie Tucker also could play slotback, Walsh said.
Players acknowledged being on the road for the third time in four weeks is challenging, but getting off to a strong start in conference play with Idaho State and Eastern Washington on the horizon could set the tone for the remainder of the season.
“When we played at Montana on the road we were dialed in and that was a great game,” junior linebacker Joseph Gigantino III said. “So hopefully we can go back to Montana this week and do the same thing.”