POCATELLO — Idaho State’s final road game of the 2018 regular season presents its most unique challenge yet.
The No. 24 Bengals (6-3, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) head to southern California to take on the triple-option rushing attack of the Cal Poly Mustangs (3-6, 2-4 Big Sky).
ISU is Cal Poly’s homecoming opponent — the fourth time ISU has been a homecoming opponent this season. North Dakota, UC Davis and Liberty were the first three.
Here is a closer look at the Mustangs, who host the Bengals on Saturday at 5:05 p.m. MST.
TRIPLE-OPTION LEADS TO TOP-5 RUSHING OFFENSE
Cal Poly is one of the FCS’ top rushing attacks each season, and this year is no different. The Mustangs lead the Big Sky and are fifth in the FCS with 328.7 yards rushing per game thanks to a well-run triple-option.
Cal Poly nets 4.71 yards per carry, has gone over 400 yards rushing in four games this season and has two games with five rushing scores. Fullback Joe Protheroe is the FCS’ leading rusher with 1,367 yards on an FCS-high 288 carries.
No other player in the Big Sky has 200 carries. Idaho State’s James Madison is second in the conference with 172 totes.
Quarterback Khaleel Jenkins is also a key part of the option with 580 yards and nine touchdowns rushing.
ISU head coach Rob Phenicie said Cal Poly’s offense limits an opponent’s margin for error, and defending the option is exceedingly difficult because it’s hard to prepare for in practice.
“You’re one assignment away from them going the distance,” Phenicie said Monday. “You can replicate the plays, but you can’t replicate the speed. … Our defense needs to see 60 reps a day, 70 reps a day, starting today and all the way through Thursday, get 300 plays in of seeing this stuff.
“Still, that won’t be anything near what they’ll come across on Saturday.”
Cal Poly has had offensive success over the years against Idaho State. The Mustangs ran for 374 yards (5.4 yards per rush) in a 38-34 Bengals win last season at Holt Arena, and scalped ISU’s defense for 499 yards rushing, 6.2 yards per rush and six rushing scores during a 58-26 rout in 2015.
Cal Poly tied a school record with eight rushing touchdowns in a 1975 matchup with Idaho State.
The only teams to hold Cal Poly under 200 yards rushing this season are North Dakota State and Weber State — currently the No. 1-ranked and No. 3-ranked teams, respectively, in the FCS. ISU’s rush defense ranks sixth in the Big Sky at 190 yards per game.
“I’m up for the challenge. I’m excited about it,” ISU linebacker Christian Holland said Monday. “We have enough faith in our coaches and what we can do as a team. This is just going to come down to being disciplined.”
PROTHEROE 2ND AMONG ACTIVE PLAYERS IN RUSHING
Protheroe, Cal Poly’s fifth-year senior fullback, has 3,828 career yards rushing — second-most among active FCS players and third in Cal Poly history.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound bruiser has piled up preseason and postseason accolades, including first-team all-Big Sky and first-team FCS All-America. He missed the final nine games of last season with a knee injury, but is back on track with three 200-yard rushing games this season.
Protheroe rushed for 32 yards on five carries in his only game against ISU — as a freshman in 2014.
Protheroe was added to the Walter Payton Award watch list on Wednesday. He has already eclipsed his career high with 1,367 yards rushing this season, plus 12 rushing touchdowns.
“He’s awesome,” Phenicie said. “He’s hard to stop.”
MUSTANGS DOMINATE TIME OF POSSESSION
Cal Poly ranks first in the FCS in time of possession, averaging 34 minutes, 54 seconds of offense per game.
The Mustangs haven’t had the ball for under 30 minutes in a game this season, and controlled the clock for a season-high 39:50 against Eastern Washington.
ISU’s strength is its offense, which, though it doesn’t need much time or many opportunities to score points, can’t do anything from the sidelines. The Bengals average 77.1 plays per game, nearly 14 more than the average Cal Poly opponent this season — 63.2.
Two teams — Brown and Sacramento State — have run over 70 plays against the Mustangs this season.
“They limit your possessions, offensively,” Phenicie said. “We’re used to running 80-85 plays. So you have to take advantage of your situations offensively.”
ISU’s offense has been opportunistic and, so far, hasn’t been fazed by limited time of possession. The Bengals had the ball the least in wins against Idaho and Portland State, which also yielded two of ISU’s three highest point totals this year.
ISU scored 62 points on 69 plays against Idaho.
“We try to give the ball back to the offense as much as possible,” Bengals safety Adkin Aguirre said Monday. “When they get the ball, they’re just rolling, they’ll do what they have to do. It’s up to us to stop teams and just give the ball back to the offense.”
MUSTANGS VULNERABLE AGAINST THE RUN
Opponents have gashed Cal Poly for 284.8 yards rushing per game and 8.0 yards per carry — both worst in the Big Sky, and in the bottom two of the 124-team FCS.
Cal Poly’s opponents have done their damage on minimal tries. The Mustangs’ 319 rushes against are fewer than any team in the Big Sky.
The weakness bodes well for one of ISU’s strengths. The Bengals average 224.7 yards rushing per game, led by tailbacks James Madison and Ty Flanagan, who both rank among the Big Sky’s top 10 rushers this season.
Three teams have eclipsed 430 yards rushing against Cal Poly this season, and Eastern Washington ripped up 14.7 yards per carry.
“You’ve just got to execute well,” Phenicie said. “They’re sound. They’re not going to take risks. They’re well-coached, and you’ve just got go out and execute well on them.”
Idaho State has rushed for 200-plus yards six times this season, including a season-high 315 against Northern Arizona. The Bengals have also scored at least one rushing touchdown each game — Cal Poly has yielded 29 rushing scores, 3.2 per game.
This article originally ran on idahostatejournal.com.