When Southern Utah head football coach Ed Lamb began preparing his team for its Big Sky Conference matchup against Cal Poly this week, he couldn’t help but notice a couple glaring similarities.
While the 24th-ranked Thunderbirds roll into Saturday’s 2:05 p.m. kickoff in the midst of a dominant five-game winning streak, the visiting Mustangs are reeling after losing four of their past five games. Now in his sixth season coaching in Cedar City, Lamb sees a lot of last year’s Southern Utah team in the 2015 version of Cal Poly.
On the heels of two hard-luck losses against No. 7 Eastern Washington and No. 14 Portland State, the Mustangs say they’re playing for pride and for each other over the final month of the season. Many believe Cal Poly has played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and its 2-5 overall record isn’t reflective of the team’s talent.
“I think our guys can see a similarity in our schedule last year,” Lamb said. “We had a pretty good football team that just had a tough time holding its identity through a really difficult first half of the season schedule-wise. I think Cal Poly is in that same position.”
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Now a year removed from their trying 3-9 campaign, the Thunderbirds (5-2, 4-0) are tied with Eastern Washington for the best record in the Big Sky Conference. Since beginning the season with losses to Utah State and South Dakota State, Southern Utah has cruised to five straight victories by an average of 38.2 points per contest.
Behind the No. 1 scoring defense in the conference, the Thunderbirds have yet to allow a defensive touchdown in four Big Sky games this season. Strong safety Miles Killebrew (66 tackles) and outside linebacker Matt Holley (61 tackles) have anchored a defensive group that leads the Big Sky in pass defense efficiency (91.0), interceptions (13) and opponent first downs per game (16.2).
Southern Utah’s red zone defense has separated itself from the rest of the Big Sky. Opponents are converting a conference-low 56.2 percent inside the 20-yard line, which includes five touchdowns and four made field goals in 16 trips to the red zone.
“I think defensively they’re the stoutest team in the league,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “Their front seven, they give up 89 yards a game rushing.”
Southern Utah uses a 4-3 defensive scheme comprised largely of sophomores and seniors. The Thunderbirds’ four-man defensive front of senior James Cowser and sophomores Sefesi Waa’ivaka, Shad Ennis and Chance Bearnson, averages a height of 6-foot-4 and a weight of 278 pounds.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound Cowser, a two-time All-American, has proven particularly disruptive throughout his career and ranks in the top six in the Big Sky in sacks (three) and tackles for loss (nine) this season. As a junior in 2014, Cowser broke the Big Sky record for tackles for lost yardage with 28.5, a mark previously set by NFL standout Jared Allen.
As good as Southern Utah’s defense has been over the past month, Cal Poly’s rushing attack presents a much different challenge. Three of the Thunderbirds’ Big Sky victories have come against UC Davis, Weber State and Sacramento State, three teams that rank 10th or lower in scoring and total offense.
No team has been able to slow the Mustangs, who lead the nation in rushing offense at more than
391 yards per game. Even with all-conference quarterback Chris Brown sitting out because of an injury last week against Portland State, Cal Poly still managed to rush for more than 400 yards in a losing effort.
“There’s just no way that our scout team guys can duplicate the speed of that offense,” Lamb said, “and the confidence that the offensive line fires off with and the way that those quarterbacks make quick decisions.”
If Brown is not cleared to play for the second straight week, true freshman Khaleel Jenkins will be in control of the Cal Poly offense. He turned in a strong performance in his collegiate debut against the Vikings, rushing for 93 yards and a touchdown, but he also gave up two of the team’s four lost fumbles.
After reviewing the Portland State film, Walsh said he would give Jenkins a high grade for his first outing. Less than a year removed from his last high school game, Jenkins came out of his redshirt year to help Cal Poly get back on track without their senior leader. What impressed Walsh most about the freshman’s performance was his resilience following the two turnovers.
“He came back with the attitude you want a guy to come back with,” Walsh said. “We didn’t want to learn that about him, but that’s what you hope for. When a guy makes a mistake that he stands back up and takes responsibility for it and plays the next play.”
Cal Poly vs. No. 24 Southern Utah
What: Big Sky Conference football, Week 5
Where: Eccles Coliseum, Cedar City, Utah
When: 2:05 p.m. Saturday
Radio: ESPN 1280 AM