When speaking with reporters this week during the Big Sky Conference teleconference, Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh had a short but pointed list of challenges the Mustangs will face over the weekend.
In playing on the road for the fourth time in six weeks, Cal Poly goes to three-time defending conference champion Eastern Washington at 1:05 p.m. Saturday in front of an expected sellout crowd at Roos Field and its infamous red turf.
The Eagles (2-2, 1-0 Big Sky) are coming off a bye week and got extended rest after seven starters sat out and three other players were injured during their game against Sacramento State two weeks ago.
That also meant an extra week to prepare for the Mustangs (2-3, 1-1) and their triple-option offense, which leads the Big Sky and ranks No. 1 in the FCS in rushing for the third straight season.
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“Like anyone four games in, you have some guys that you can heal up, and we were definitely in that boat,” eighth-year Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. “But you can also, even more importantly I think, work on a lot of fundamental things.”
The Eagles have played a similarly difficult schedule to that of Cal Poly, which is playing a preseason top-25 opponent for the sixth consecutive week. During its season opener against Pac-12 North favorite Oregon, Eastern Washington put a 42-point scare into the Ducks and senior transfer quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.
The Eagles split their next two games — at Northern Iowa and at home against Montana State — before holding off the upset-minded Hornets in Sacramento.
Leaning on the right arm of 6-foot-4 junior quarterback Jordan West, Eastern Washington ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky Conference in passing offense (466.2 yards per game), total offense (590.5), pass efficiency (191.9) and second in scoring offense (40.0).
“The deal is we have to be solid in what we’re doing on defense,” Walsh said. “Every guy thinks sometimes when you play an offense that has their numbers they have to be spectacular. You’ve got to be good. You’ve got to be solid.”
Cal Poly’s projected starting secondary of cornerbacks Karlton Dennis and Fernando Cabico, and safeties B.J. Nard and Kaulin Blair will be called upon early and often. Eastern Washington junior receiver Cooper Kupp is widely considered one of the best players in the FCS, and he is a key cog in the Eagles’ potent offense. He leads the country in nearly every major receiving category, and is the Big Sky’s career leader in touchdown receptions with 47.
Fellow junior Kendrick Bourne also is among the conference leaders with 24 receptions for 430 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Nic Sblendorlo is averaging more than 77 yards per game as a productive third option.
“If you just focus on Cooper Kupp you’re making a mistake, because really they have four receivers that are good players,” Walsh said. “There’s times where you can watch them on film and he’s running people off and a lot of people are going with him and they’re throwing the ball underneath for a 15-yard gain.
“You still have to play the game.”
Walsh also said the Mustangs have to be ready to answer offensively when Eastern Washington scores, with hopes of avoiding the early 21-0 deficits that led to losses against Northern Iowa and Montana State.
Cal Poly sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe, the No. 2 leading rusher in the Big Sky, is expected to be back after missing last week’s game against Idaho State with a concussion.
Protheroe and senior quarterback Chris Brown are the only players in the conference with more than 95 carries, and they’re each averaging more than 105 yards per game. Junior slotback Kori
Garcia has returned to form in recent weeks after a relatively slow start to the season. He proved as much during the win over the Bengals with a 146-yard, three-touchdown effort on 18 carries.
“You’ve got to be playing really, really good 11-man football on defense,” Baldwin said. “Against other teams you can get away with a guy or two being off or making a mistake and still have a good defense play. A lot of times against these guys you can’t have that.”