When the Cal Poly football team finished practice Tuesday morning at the Upper Sports Complex, head coach Tim Walsh spoke to his players about sticking together and competing for one another.
The Mustangs are 2-5 overall, having lost four of their past five games. Each of the past two setbacks — a 42-41 overtime decision against No. 5 Eastern Washington and a 38-35 loss to No. 12 Portland State — have been particularly difficult given how well Cal Poly played.
For the third consecutive season, the Mustangs field the No. 1-ranked rushing team in the FCS, piling up more than 391 yards per game. That’s 133 yards more than the second-best rushing team in the Big Sky Conference, Portland State, and is on pace to break the school and conference season records once again.
Looking to build upon that success, Cal Poly travels to No. 24 Southern Utah for a 2:05 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City, Utah. The Thunderbirds (5-2, 4-0 Big Sky) have won five consecutive games by an average of 38.2 points per contest, and they boast the stingiest defense in the conference in several categories.
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Southern Utah ranks No. 1 in scoring defense (12.8 points per game), total defense (317.8 yards), pass defense efficiency (91.0), interceptions (13) and turnover margin (+11). It also allows a conference-best 16.2 first downs per game, and no opponent has successfully converted on fourth down, something Cal Poly has achieved 23 times this season.
“I’m really impressed with the confidence that they’re playing with,” Walsh said. “I think defensively they’re the stoutest team in the league.”
Brown’s status unknown moving forward
Senior quarterback Chris Brown did not dress down for practice Tuesday morning as he continues to recover from an undisclosed injury.
The preseason All-American sat out Saturday’s game but still served as a team captain and was physically active on the Mustangs’ sideline. It has been 18 days since Brown last played against Eastern Washington, and Walsh said the team will err on the side of caution until Brown is ready to return.
“He did a lot of stuff today so we’re hoping he can play,” Walsh said. “He did all the throwing and he did some air run-game stuff, so it’s a start.”
There was a laundry list of other key players who did not participate in Tuesday’s practice, including running backs Joe Protheroe, DJ Peluso and Kyle Lewis, linebacker Tu’uta Inoke, defensive backs Mekai Sheffie and Aaron Johnson, and offensive lineman Calvin Sandeen.
Walsh said he expects most of those players to be available against Southern Utah with the exception of Sheffie. The redshirt freshman cornerback is dealing with a knee injury that could keep him sidelined until the final week of the season, Walsh said.
Moving on from Portland State
The Mustangs didn’t take any more time than usual to review film from the loss to Portland State.
Despite outgaining the Vikings by 150 total yards, including a 266-yard advantage in rushing, Cal Poly couldn’t overcome four turnovers and a couple defensive miscues. Portland State quarterback Alex Kuresa ultimately was the difference maker, passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 101 yards and two more scores.
During the final drive that set up Portland State’s go-ahead field goal with 28 seconds left, Kuresa carried the ball three times and completed 3 of 4 passes, including a key 9-yard strike on third-and-8 to keep the drive alive.
“It seems like we were just a couple plays away,” said senior safety Kaulin Blair, who intercepted his second pass of the year against the Vikings. “We definitely wanted to get off the field on that last drive. That was a rough way to end it.”
Perhaps the biggest bright spot from Saturday’s setback emerged from a tough situation.
With Brown missing his first game of the year, true freshman quarterback Khaleel Jenkins was pressed into action for the first time in his career.
Jenkins completed 3 of 14 passes for 59 yards and carried the ball 16 times for 93 more yards. A sack on the final play of the game subtracted 9 yards from Jenkins’ net total in an otherwise impressive collegiate debut.
“I think there’s no question you saw the potential that’s there,” Walsh said. “He’s got tremendous potential. He’s got a lot of the ‘it’ factor.”