Having coached defense for close to 30 years, Cal Poly football head coach Rich Ellerson said in a Sept. 17 press conference that if he had a worst nightmare, it would be the triple option.
So it’s no surprise that Ellerson has employed that nightmare as the primary weapon of his team’s offensive strategy.
No. 24 Cal Poly will get a chance to test its improvements to the triple option – especially in this week’s running game – when it squares off for the first time in school history against Div. II-Independent Western Oregon (3-0), which has managed to hold opponents to a total of 128 yards on the ground in three games.
“If you’re a coach or a player and you’re paying attention, if you haven’t learned anything else, you’ve learned to erase that suffix because it doesn’t mean anything,” Ellerson said at a weekly athletics press conference.
Ellerson also said at the conference that the triple option is working to a certain extent in terms of freeing up the perimeter for pass plays but that the running game still needs work.
“(Opponents) see what we’re trying to do and they see how close we are to getting it done,” Ellerson said at the conference. “We need to take the step and get some of those things done in the run game to keep those numbers as thin as they are in the pass game.”
The Wolves are coming off a 22-14 come-from-behind win last week over Texas A&M-Kingsville. Western Oregon trailed 14-3 at one point but was able to fire off 19 unanswered points in the second half. One touchdown featured a 59-yard punt return from Shaun Kauleinamoku.
The Mustangs, on the other hand, were able to rebound from road losses to Texas State-San Marcos and Idaho with a 47-19 win over Weber State last week, seemingly bringing the offensive aspect of the game under control with junior quarterback Jonathan Dally passing 13 for 20, finishing the game with 328 yards and six touchdowns.
Wide receiver Ramses Barden, who was the recipient of four of Dally’s six touchdowns, had nine catches for 219 yards.
Running back James Noble rushed 15 times for 69 yards in the Weber State game.
Noble, who rushed for 250 yards in his first three games last year, has posted 144 yards this season, while adjusting to the triple option and recovering from a hand injury.
“It has an effect,” Noble said of his presence in the offense and the triple option. “More people are going to touch the ball other than myself.”
But at this point in the season Noble said that his “main focus is just getting healthy.”
The Wolves’ defense gives up an average of 232.7 yards per game and is led by defensive back Zach Christopherson, who has accounted for both of the Wolves’ interceptions this season, and J.T. Gilmore, who has picked up 31 total tackles so far.
The 6-foot-2 Christopherson has also broken up two passes and is fourth on the team in tackles with 13.
Leading the Wolves’ offensive artillery is Ben Kuenzi, who has rushed for 403 yards so far this season – 108 yards from last week’s game – and has posted two touchdowns.
Kuenzi averages 4.9 yards per carry and 134.3 yards per game.
In the air, Wolves quarterback Mark Thorson has completed 61 of 102 passes and has been picked off four times, but don’t let those numbers fool you. Thorson is averaging 216.7 yards per game and has passed for five touchdowns this season.
Thorson throws somewhat consistently to four targets.
Isaiah Smith and Brad Ching each have 12 receptions, followed by Shaun Kauleinamoku with 10 and Sean Fullerton with nine. Smith leads the group with a 51.7 per-game average, with Fullerton, Ching and Kauleinamoku averaging 46, 43.7 and 41, respectively.
Defensively, the Mustangs, who have given up an average of 163 yards per game in the air and 627 on the ground, should play well against the Wolves’ offense if they are able to put pressure on Thorson, who has passed for 650 yards in three games.
The Mustangs posted 12 break-ups so far this season with seven of those coming in the Weber State game.
“We have to play with sophistication on defense,” Ellerson said at the press conference.
He also said that he would like to see the veteran defenders play more precisely.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The game will be the second of a three-game homestand for Cal Poly.