The Cal Poly Mustangs almost knocked off an FBS opponent to start the 2016 college football season. Cal Poly came into its game against Nevada as a 21-point underdog and looked like it might not even cover in the first quarter. The Wolf Pack jumped out to a 21-7 lead in the first frame, moving the ball down the field with ease against the Mustangs defense.
After that, though, the Cal Poly ‘D’ tightened. The team’s clock-control offense held the ball for over 36 minutes, allowing the defense to catch its breath, and the Mustangs allowed just three points over the final 45 minutes of regulation.
It took some time for that offense to grind down Nevada’s defense, but it eventually did. Cal Poly scored twice in the fourth quarter and sent the game to overtime, threatening to knock off an FBS opponent for the first time ever. Unfortunately, the Wolf Pack ruined that dream with a James Butler overtime touchdown that gave Nevada a 30-27 victory.
The Mustangs run a triple-option attack that gives opponents fits. Last season, they ended the year with the second-best rushing attack at the FCS level, averaging 343.5 yards per game. Fullback Joe Protheroe led the charge with 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
Protheroe is a load to bring down and will be the lead back again this season. At 6-foot and 225 pounds, he is a plodder that wears down defenses over the course of a game. He racked up 119 yards and a touchdown against Nevada last season, proving that he can hang with the big boys.
Cal Poly is going to be starting a new quarterback in Khaleel Jenkins, but the offense shouldn’t miss a beat. Although he isn’t as good of a passer as last year’s quarterback, Dano Graves, he is an even better runner. Jenkins has been the team’s primary backup for the past two seasons and knows what it takes to run this offense.
At the other running back slot, Kyle Lewis looks set to shine. Lewis hasn’t carried the ball much during his time at Cal Poly, but he has a knack for making big plays. He averaged 9.7 yards per carry and 17 yards per reception last season and had eight plays of 30 yards or more on just 83 touches.
San Jose State had one of the worst run defenses in college football last season, and that unit doesn’t figure to be much better this year. The Spartans allowed 246.7 yards per game on the ground in 2016, and although they do bring back the majority of their starters on the defensive side of the ball, they have an entirely new coaching staff.
The coaches are planning to install an up-tempo offense, which won’t bode well for its defense in the early going. You can say all you want about how well the offense looks at practice and in scrimmages, but it takes time to change schemes. And early in the year, this adjustment will lead to plenty of quick drives. The defense will be left hung out to dry on more than one occasion, and Cal Poly thrives on winning the time of possession battle.
Additionally, the Spartans are switching defensive schemes. San Jose State will move from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which will throw things into flux. That should help the porous run defense close some of those holes, but it will take a while before the changes take hold.
The Mustangs weren’t good on defense, but they do return eight starters on that side of the ball and get back a few key pieces from injury. They will have something else working in their favor too. San Jose State’s offensive line has allowed 88 sacks over the last two seasons and is now going to be tasked with protecting the quarterback on even more passing plays. That won’t be pretty.
One of the key things to look at when projecting an FCS over FBS upset is schedule. Ideally, the FCS team is a sandwich game for the FBS squad with a tough opponent the week before and a tough opponent the week after. That’s exactly the case here.
San Jose State played South Florida the week before facing Cal Poly—the Bulls rallied from an early 16-point deficit to claim a 42-22 win last Saturday in a “Week 0” game—and then will travel to Texas to take on the Longhorns the week after. This is a prime spot for an FCS over FBS upset.