BOZEMAN, Mont. — If there was any silver lining stemming from the Cal Poly football team’s loss to Montana State over the weekend, perhaps it’s that many of the Mustang players and coaches have been in this situation before.
For the second year in a row, Cal Poly has gone 1-3 in its first four games and dug itself into an early hole in the Big Sky Conference standings.
Last season, the Mustangs leaned on quarterback Chris Brown and ran off five consecutive victories to get back in the FCS playoff picture.
With the way Cal Poly’s schedule it set up this fall, a similar winning streak is certainly feasible. The Mustangs host an Idaho State team at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium that is coming off an 80-8 loss at UNLV last week.
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The second week in October features a trip to Cheney, Wash., to play the three-time defending Big Sky champions. A bye week follows and then a string of winnable games against Portland State, Southern Utah, Sacramento State, UC Davis and North Dakota to close out the regular season.
“We’ve got to rally back and win a game next week,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “If we can win a game next week then we can start talking about what happens the following week.
“I don’t think we’re in any position right now to talk about the playoffs.”
The defense that held Montana to 19 points and stayed even with Arizona State for three quarters has been humbled in consecutive weeks. Both Northern Iowa and Montana State ran out to 21-point first-quarter leads and Cal Poly’s offense isn’t designed to play from behind.
There was a certain sense of déjà vu Saturday in Bozeman, where the Bobcats used a fake punt and flea-flicker on consecutive plays to rattle the Mustangs defensively. When Cal Poly had the ball it was unable to sustain drives against a Montana State defense that made several changes to its starting lineup prior to the game.
The early troubles against Northern Iowa proved to be more than a flash in the pan. Since winning at Montana during Week 1, the Mustangs have been outscored 49-7 in first quarters.
Walsh said many of the long pass plays Cal Poly gave up to Dakota Prukop — a junior with Big Sky player of the year ability — were on “blown coverages” stemming from lack of communication.
Some of that can be traced to the Mustangs inexperienced secondary, which lost all-conference performer Chris Fletcher to a season-ending injury and projected starter Kaulin Blair for three games with a leg injury.
“We definitely have to go back to the drawing board,” senior cornerback Karlton Dennis said, “and make sure that we’re communicating on every single level and that we’re playing as a unit.”
Since Fletcher was injured in the third quarter against Arizona State, Cal Poly has allowed six touchdown passes and more than 700 yards through the air. Players have said Fletcher’s absence isn’t an excuse for trouble in the secondary, though it seems he is missed even more than originally expected.
Walsh said there were some positives to be taken from the loss in Bozeman. He was pleased with the effort it took to mount a second-quarter comeback and cut the deficit to 10 points at halftime. There also were some good things offensively.
Sophomore Joe Protheroe rushed for more than 100 yards for the third time in four games. His 156 rushing yards were a career high, the third time Protheroe has achieved that this season.
Brown threw a pair of touchdowns to seniors Jordan Hines and Willie Tucker, the first scoring reception for both players in 2015.
Junior running back Kori Garcia, who has been hindered by a left shoulder injury, ran for more than 100 yards for the first time this season. Cal Poly had success running the ball on the perimeter, which was a main point of concern following the loss to Northern Iowa.
“The littlest thing matters,” Garcia said. “We’ve got to come back Monday and starting watching film and just get back on the right track.”