No. 16 Cal Poly looks to avoid letdown
(STATS) - Since taking over the Cal Poly program in 2009, Tim Walsh has experienced his share of losses.
One defeat, however, haunts him.
Fresh off a second consecutive victory over a top-10 opponent and in the STATS FCS Top 25 for the first time this season, the Mustangs look to avoid a letdown and avenge last season's loss to North Dakota in Saturday's visit to the Alerus Center.
Cal Poly (3-1, 1-0 Big Sky) may have been one of the FCS' more underrated teams a week ago, but it will no longer be sneaking up on anyone as the 16-ranked team. After winning 38-31 at then-No. 9 South Dakota State on Sept. 17, the Mustangs knocked off then-No. 6 Montana 42-41 in a back-and-forth-thriller last weekend. It was the third straight victory for Cal Poly since losing to Nevada of the Mountain West Conference in overtime.
The FCS' top rushing team each of the last two seasons is once again atop the division at 362.8 yards per game. Junior fullback Joe Protheroe is the No. 1 option, leading the FCS with 557 yards rushing - an average of 6.0 per carry - while quarterback Dano Graves is at 328 and 5.4. Kori Garcia has run for 285 yards and his average of 6.6 per carry is second only to teammate Kyle Lewis (145 yards, 6.9 average) among those in the FCS with at least 20 attempts.
"They got a number of guys that can hurt you," UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. "You really can't key on one guy."
Running the triple option, it's no secret the Mustangs like to keep the ball on the ground, but they were still bottled up by North Dakota last season. The Fighting Hawks limited Cal Poly to 153 rushing yards on 48 attempts while scoring the game's first 35 points en route to a 45-21 victory in the 2015 finale.
"To be honest with you, it will be a game I'll remember for the rest of my life because it was one of the worst games one of my teams has ever played was against them last year," Walsh said. "I want to get that feeling out and I want to get it against North Dakota."
UND (2-2, 1-0) held the Mustangs to their fewest run yards since their 2011 opener at San Diego State and 131 less than their second-worst rushing performance of 2015, which came against a much more imposing opponent in Arizona State.
"North Dakota is a different beast," Walsh said. "They came in here and beat us up in every way a year ago. They outcoached us, they outplayed us, they outschemed us, they outdid us in every single way last time we played them."
They also beat them at their own game, as John Santiago had 117 of the Fighting Hawks' 219 rushing yards and scored three times.
Santiago, who ran for 1,459 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2015 to receive STATS second-team All-America honors, has gained 367 on the ground this season but isn't the only back Cal Poly needs to worry about.
Fellow sophomore Brady Oliveira was named the Big Sky offensive player of the week after rushing for a career-high 171 yards in last Saturday's 17-15 win at Montana State. He scored on a 60-yard run with 2:27 to play and is averaging 5.9 yards per attempt on the season.
"They have a great one-two punch and whoever's rolling they feel like they can play," Walsh said. "We saw enough of Santiago last year and I saw enough of Oliveira this past weekend watching him play against Montana State on film, so we've got our work cut out for us."
Establishing their own ground game is also a top priority for the Mustangs against a formidable North Dakota defense.
The Fighting Hawks rank second in the Big Sky in rush defense, allowing an average of 113.8, and are limiting opponents to an average of 3.0 yards per carry - 15th-best in the FCS.
While Graves will repeatedly hand the ball to either Protheroe, Garcia or Lewis, or just take it himself, defenses can't ignore the pass.
Graves attempted just 10 throws last week but three of them went for scores, notching TD strikes of 16, 39 and 55 yards. Five of his six TD passes on the season have been for more than 25 yards and he's averaging 12.4 yards per attempt - the highest in the FCS among those with at least 40 attempts.
"They've added a real solid passing game to their attack, which has always been there but they're so efficient with it," Schweigert said.
This will be the Fighting Hawks' 100th game at the Alerus Center, where they're 9-3 under Schweigert.