After Western Illinois controlled the clock for nearly two-thirds of Northern Arizona’s home opener two weeks ago, the Lumberjacks will face a similar battle against the Cal Poly Mustangs on Saturday in California.
Among the nation’s leader in time of possession at 33:52 per game, Cal Poly and its triple-option offense has attempted only 43 passes in three games this season. Sitting at 17th nationally with 237 yards per game, the Mustangs enter the game with fullback Jared Mohamed and quarterback Khaleel Jenkins leading the attack on the ground.
“I am not kidding you, that's one of our tougher matchups in the conference because of the style of ball they play,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “It is very difficult to prepare for, so coming off of a bye week and having extra time, I think the players can feel more prepared. There’s just no way in six days you can get ready for that style.”
Ranked at No. 23 in the STATS FCS Preseason Poll and the FCS Coaches Preseason Poll, the Mustangs were also picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky, just behind the Lumberjacks (0-2) in third. A pair of close losses to Colgate, 20-14 in San Luis Obispo, and the 45-38 overtime loss to Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls left Cal Poly at 0-3 with its loss to FBS San Jose State in between.
With preseason All-American Joe Protheroe sidelined by a knee injury sustained against San Jose State, the 1,300-yard rusher from last season will miss the remainder of the 2017 season and look to a medical redshirt in order to return next year.
Mohamed took over as the leading rusher against Northern Iowa, finishing with 112 yards on 23 carries while Jenkins added 102 yards on a staggering 37 carries in the overtime loss.
“It is a system offense; the guys that they are going to play in that fullback spot they have are tough kids. They hit the hole hard and fast,” Souers said. “Joe Protheroe, he is a great kid, a great player, really a leader on their team. But their O-line is what is making their inside game so effective. They do a great job of cut blocking, a great job of getting into your body and if you don't manage that inside game that’s all you are going to see.”
Cal Poly senior Joey Kuperman entered the season named to the preseason All-Big Sky Conference team at center after earning All-Big Sky first-team honors after 12 starts as a junior and left guard Harry Whitson earned third-team honors as a sophomore in 2016.
MOUNTING A DEFENSE
While Jenkins rushed for 169 yards through three games from the quarterback position, he also had four of his five touchdown passes against Northern Iowa. Completing 9 of 16 passes, Jenkins connected for touchdown passes of 44, 34, 35 and 53 yards during the game as the Mustangs’ run set up its passing attack.
“You have to account for the quarterback in strategy and numbers... it is very difficult to stop,” Souers said, citing Arizona’s success with Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate running the ball in the season opener. “It puts a lot of people in one-on-one situations and isolated in open space. Their run game has more opportunities to thrive in that kind of setting.”
Souers cited Northern Arizona’s need to disrupt Cal Poly’s offensive flow, knowing the Mustangs will get their yards on the ground no matter how strong the Lumberjacks’ defense plays due to their commitment to the run game.
Hoping to force the Mustangs into second or third-and-long, the Lumberjacks head coach added his team has to disrupt Cal Poly’s rhythm and break up its flow in order to get his own offense back on the field with the ball.
With two weeks to prep for the Mustangs, defensive coordinator Andy Thompson said the team can prepare in practice for the drastic change from offense it sees on a weekly basis, but once they get to the field it’ll look a bit different.
“The hard part is adjusting to the speed of what they run it at. We can simulate it a little bit in practice, but it is going to be a lot faster on Saturday,” Thompson said. “The kids have been all in working really hard, I think they have picked up what we are trying to do.”