SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Teams playing against Cal Poly’s triple option offense say the same things: If everyone remains disciplined and does what they’re asked to do — which is to play assignment-sound defense — you can prevent against big plays in the running game.
No.6-ranked Montana State (4-1, 1-0 Big Sky), seeking its fifth consecutive victory, conveyed that narrative this week during preparations for its league contest on the road Saturday against the Mustangs (2-2, 1-0). But, as always, it’s easier said than done.
“There’s not much to it,” MSU safety JoJo Henderson explained. “There’s a dive, a quarterback (run) and a pitch. So everyone has a job and we’ve just got to make sure we all do our job every play.
“That’s kind of where they get you. They lull you to sleep and then expose you when someone gets nosey and doesn’t do their job. That’s kind of what happened last year. We got undisciplined in that second half and they ran all over us.”
This game, as Henderson mentioned, is a rematch of the Bobcats’ 49-42 home win over Cal Poly from last November, during which the Mustangs rushed for 369 yards (244 in the second half) and scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to make things a lot more interesting than they originally were.
The Bobcats, though, had 430 rushing yards of their own, including 227 yards (an MSU freshman record) and three touchdowns by Isaiah Ifanse, to prevail.
“You make them earn it. They’re going to eat up chunks of time,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said. “They want to try to shorten the game, take away possessions from the offense, force you to defend something crazy, and every once in a while pop that big play.”
This week’s game pits the top-two rushing teams in the Big Sky Conference head to head. Montana State is averaging 275 yards per game on the ground, No. 1 in the league and sixth among all FCS teams. Cal Poly averages 257.8 per game.
Ifanse has missed the past three games due to injury but MSU’s ground game has continued to thrive. Six different players have reached the 100-yard mark in a game so far this season.
Last week it was receiver/wildcat QB Travis Jonsen’s turn. He led the team with 105 yards on the ground, his first career 100-yard game rushing.
Shane Perry has rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns combined in the past two games. He had just nine yards in the first three.
“I love being able to contribute and I hope I can continue to contribute, whatever my role may be,” Perry said. “But the O-line is really opening it up for all the running backs.”
Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh commented on the diversity of the Bobcats’ running game.
“Not only do you have to prepare for everything they do formationally, but also personnel-wise within the formations,” said Walsh, now in his 11th year with the Mustangs. “I don’t think they run a ton of plays, but they run them out of so many different formations and looks and shifts, so you better be alert to what’s going on.”
Cal Poly’s leading rusher is fullback Duy Tran-Sampson, whose 99.5 yards per game lead the league. Thompson has filled in nicely for the departed Joe Protheroe, who finished his career last season as the school’s all-time leading rusher.
One storyline is the health of Cal Poly starting quarterback Jalen Hamler. Hamler left last week’s 24-21 victory at Southern Utah in the third quarter and didn’t return. He was replaced by Jake Jeffrey, who rushed for a second-half touchdown.
The Bobcats, who have won four straight games, will be without starting safety Jahque Alleyn until after halftime. Alleyne must serve a first-half suspension as a result of being called for targeting in last week’s win against Northern Arizona.
Montana State and Cal Poly are scheduled to kick off at 6 p.m. Mountain time. The game will be televised statewide on ABC/FOX Montana and on SWX in the Billings area.
Spotlight on: J.J. Koski
You don’t think much about the passing game when you think about Cal Poly. But the Mustangs have moved the ball through the air more effectively this season, and J.J. Koski is a top playmaker.
Koski, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior from Danville, California, had back-to-back 100-yard receiving games to start the season, and his 22-yards-per-catch average is No. 1 in the Big Sky among qualifying pass-catchers.
He had two touchdown catches in a 52-34 Week 1 victory at home against San Diego, and has made five catches of 35-plus yards in four games. He also is used as a runner on offense and as a returner on special teams.
Furthermore, Hamler, a redshirt freshman from the Los Angeles area, is also No. 1 in the Big Sky in pass efficiency while averaging 20.3 yards per completion.
“One of the things that I’ve really noticed is I think they’re more willing to push the ball down the field vertically,” Choate said. “San Diego really tried to go all in and pack the box, and I think they threw for almost 300 yards against San Diego. So that’s unheard of.
“It’s all about what you do to limit them in the run and make them predictable. Getting any option team off schedule is important because it takes away a little bit of the element of surprise. But I definitely think that they have a new added element.”