Cal Poly’s football season can go one of two ways Saturday night.
The Mustangs host a red-hot Portland State team ranked No. 14 in the country with a chance to preserve hopes of a postseason berth. Knock off the Vikings at home, and the rest of the schedule is set up favorably for Cal Poly to make its case as one of the 24 playoff-bound teams in the country.
A loss at Alex G. Spanos Stadium would put the Mustangs (2-4 overall, 1-2 Big Sky Conference) in a situation where a 6-5 finish to the regular season would be the best case scenario.
Such is life in the Big Sky Conference this fall, where 12 of the 13 teams already have at least two losses — Portland State being the lone exception.
“We can’t worry about the future,” said junior defensive end Kelly Shepard, an Arroyo Grande High graduate. “We’ve just got to worry about now, or else it means nothing.
“We’re attacking it one game at a time, but I feel we’re confident in ourselves and we’ve seen glimpses of a championship team in us.”
Cal Poly is coming off a welcomed bye week following its 42-41 overtime loss at Eastern Washington. The three-time defending conference champion Eagles overcame a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to force the extra period, and the Mustangs left Roos Field knowing they let one get away.
We better be able to tackle the run. If we can’t, it’ll be a long night for us.
Tim Walsh, Cal Poly’s head football coach
Things don’t get any easier against a Portland State team that’s been on a roll the past two weeks. In defeating FBS-level opponent North Texas and then-No. 16 Montana State at home, the Vikings have combined for 1,352 yards and 125 points to extend their best start to a season in 15 years.
“Offensively, all of a sudden, they’ve exploded,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “Early in the season they were struggling. I think once they determined who their quarterback was going to be, I think it’s allowed them to find an identity on offense.”
Portland State is among the conference leaders in several statistical categories on both sides of the ball.
The Vikings rank second in rushing (275.8 yards per game), third in scoring offense (38.5 points per game) and fourth in total offense (436.3). They also rank second in scoring defense (16.5), rushing defense (126.2 yards per game), total defense (318.5) and interceptions (nine).
Senior running back David Jones is one of five players in the Big Sky averaging more than 100 yards rushing, and he leads the conference by gaining 9.1 yards per carry. During the win against Montana State last week, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Jones rushed for career highs with 285 yards and three touchdowns.
“We better be able to tackle the run,” Walsh said. “If we can’t, it’ll be a long night for us.”
The same can be said for the Vikings.
Cal Poly is leading the FCS in rushing by a wide margin for the third consecutive season.
Protheroe played through a handful of injuries against Eastern Washington to finish with 121 yards rushing and two touchdowns on a career-high 30 carries. The Concord native has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the five games he’s played this season.
All of Protheroe’s 554 rushing yards have come between the tackles and he’s quick to praise Cal Poly’s starting offensive line of Matthew Fisher, Nick Enriquez, Stephen Sippel, Joey Kuperman and Weston Walker.
“You’ve got big guys that are moving and coming at you,” Protheroe said. “You think they’re going to come get you and then they just take out their thigh. I would hate to play defense against our offense.”
The Vikings have only allowed three 100-yard rushers through six games: Montana State’s Dakota Prukop (102) and North Dakota’s John Santiago (111) and Keaton Studsrud (107).
Portland State’s only loss of the season came against North Dakota, which overcame a halftime deficit to win 19-17. North Dakota used a similar style to Cal Poly, running the ball 53 times and keeping possession for nearly 36 minutes in the victory.
First-year head coach Bruce Barnum said he expects to see a more talented rushing attack Saturday night, one that’s proven difficult for any team to stop this season.
“They’re going to figure out what we’re doing (defensively) at some point,” Barnum said. “We’re hoping to get a few stops and make it a game before that.
“Because once they figure you out ... they’re going to score.”
Cal Poly Football
Who: Cal Poly Mustangs vs. Portland State Vikings
When: 6:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium
Radio: ESPN 1280 AM, 5:30 p.m.