North Dakota, Cal Poly off to sputtering starts
By MATT BECKER
(STATS) - Back in July, Big Sky coaches and media were in agreement that North Dakota was the league's team to beat. Cal Poly also figured to challenge for the conference title, picked to finish fourth in each poll while garnering one first-place vote.
Heading into the first Saturday of October, those projected contenders are a combined 1-9.
The playoffs are still almost two months away but are essentially starting this weekend for the only two Big Sky teams with a pair of conference losses.
"As we see it, every game for us is a playoff game," UND senior safety Chuck Flowers said. "We're just going to take it one practice at a time, use our motto 'day by day' and we're just looking to start building up some wins here to really get back in the race because our ultimate goal is still a national championship."
A national title certainly seemed like a realistic goal for North Dakota after it won a share of the Big Sky crown last season and was ranked eighth in the STATS FCS preseason Top 25. And although the playoffs might seem out of reach for the Fighting Hawks (1-4, 0-2), last season Cal Poly made it with three conference defeats while Illinois State out of the Missouri Valley Football Conference snuck in with six wins. So with six games still on the schedule for UND and the Mustangs (0-5, 0-2), a postseason berth is still a possibility - albeit, a remote one.
"We want to fight," coach Bubba Schweigert said ahead of the Fighting Hawks' game against Northern Colorado on Saturday. "This is a down time. Results have not gone our way and we want to really fight. This reveals a lot of character, it can build character. … We need to really focus on improving our football team and it's got to be a one day at a time approach."
There are several areas where North Dakota needs to improve, but perhaps the most glaring is a defense which has become a pushover one year after it was the stingiest in the FCS' highest-scoring conference.
The Fighting Hawks, who allowed an average of 22 points last season, did shut out a 1-4 Missouri State team but have surrendered an average of 44.8 points in their defeats. The 651 yards allowed in last week's 48-24 loss at UC Davis were their most since 2012.
The offense, meanwhile, has been nowhere near good enough to bail out the woeful D.
UND averaged 208.4 rushing yards last season to rank just outside the top 20 but has been held to less than 103 on three occasions this year. John Santiago, a STATS FCS Preseason All-American, had rushed for 177 yards in the first four games before breaking out for 170 last Saturday, though 120 came on two runs and he also fumbled.
An inability to consistently move the ball on the ground for a run-first team is a recipe for disaster, and the Fighting Hawks have struggled to move the chains. Their 26:21 total time of possession ranks 119th out of 124 FCS schools, and they're converting just 24.3 percent of third downs during their three-game skid.
"Just stay on the field to get long drives going really helps our defense," offensive lineman Mat Cox said. "Helps them take less plays, get their corrections on the sideline while we're out doing our thing. Longer drives and sustaining drives really helps out our defense."
Cal Poly's offense was rolling last Saturday at Idaho State, and the Mustangs were on their way to finally moving into the win column until things completely fell apart. Cal Poly gained 20 yards in the fourth quarter and went three-and-out on its final two possessions. As a result, it was outscored 21-3 over the final 18 minutes and handed a 38-34 loss.
The Mustangs entered this season ranked 23rd, but nothing has gone right. They're winless after five games for the first time since 2002 and haven't had a worse start since their 0-10 1964 season.
"Before we need to start thinking about the future, we have to get our first win," Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said.
The Mustangs have historically found success behind a triple-option offense, which finished atop the FCS in rushing for the fourth straight year in 2016 at 360.6 yards per game, but it hasn't been nearly as potent this year at 252.6. Its average of 5.7 yards per carry a year ago trailed only two teams in the FCS, but it has tumbled down to 4.0 to rank 58th.
The unique offense usually creates headaches for opposing defensive coordinators, but Walsh believes Southern Utah has an edge in Saturday's matchup considering the Thunderbirds are coming off a bye week and have had extra time to prepare.
"Any team that has a bye week against us is an advantage to them," he said.
Much of the drop-off in the run game can be attributed to a season-ending knee injury to STATS Preseason All-American first-team selection Joe Protheroe. Jared Mohamed has helped pick up the slack, however, rushing for 311 yards in the last three games, and quarterback Khaleel Jenkins ran for 202 last week - the second-most ever in a game by a Cal Poly QB.
Even before Protheroe's injury, though, the Mustangs were struggling to convert third downs. Cal Poly led the nation in third-down conversions a year ago, moving the chains on 53.6 percent of 179 attempts, but now they're at 37.6 percent, good for 58th.
Holding on to the ball has been another major issue for Cal Poly, which already has lost eight fumbles and has 10 turnovers - six fewer than all of last season.
"In reality, in almost every game we had a control of our destiny and we made mistakes to allow us not to control our destiny," Walsh said. "If you take care of the football or you take care of the coverage here or there, the season looks a lot different. Unfortunately, you can't go back and change those things, all you can do is try to get better at what you're doing."
Updated October 6, 2017