Top offenses clash in EWU-Cal Poly matchup
(STATS) – There's not going to be any major surprises for the defenses in Saturday night's Big Sky showdown between Eastern Washington and Cal Poly.
And although each team knows exactly what the opposition wants to do with the ball, actually stopping them is a whole other story.
In a matchup between two teams with an eye on the Big Sky crown, the third-ranked Eagles bring the FCS' top-ranked passing offense to San Luis Obispo, California, for a clash with No. 14 Cal Poly, which boasts the subdivision's top rushing attack.
The Big Sky is far and away the most explosive conference in the FCS. Its teams are averaging a subdivision-best 426.5 offensive yards and have amassed 421 scrimmage TDs – 99 more than the next-closest conference.
Eastern Washington (7-1, 5-0) and Cal Poly (6-2, 4-1) are two of the premier offenses in the Big Sky, but their playbooks are vastly different.
For the second straight year, the Eagles are atop the FCS in passing yards, and nobody is really close. EWU's 439.4 yards through the air are the most by a team since 2000, and 63.4 yards more than Samford, the division's No. 2 team in passing.
The aerial attack is led by the dangerous duo of quarterback Gage Gubrud and wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who are both on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List.
Gubrud wrapped up an astounding October by throwing four touchdowns in last Saturday's 35-16 win over then-No. 16 Montana. In four games last month, the sophomore completed 71.7 percent of his passes for 1,783 yards with 19 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
He has 31 TDs on the season, with 11 going to Kupp while Shaq Hill has hauled in 10 scores through the air.
Kupp leads the FCS with 143.7 receiving yards per game and needs 17 receptions to tie Elon's Terrell Hudgins' FCS record of 395 catches. The 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year already owns the FCS records of 5,770 receiving yards and 67 TDs.
“We've got our work cut out for us,” Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. “I really do think that they are probably the best team in the nation right now. I think they are so skilled on offense.”
Walsh's team, however, was able to shut down Kupp in last season's meeting, limiting him to 21 yards on four receptions. Although Kupp managed his fewest yards since gaining nine in the sixth game of his freshman year, EWU rallied from 15 points down in the final five minutes and went on to win 42-41 in overtime.
The Eagles prevailed despite allowing the Mustangs to churn out 503 rushing yards – the most they've yielded since 1998.
Cal Poly, the FCS' top rushing team each of the last two seasons, is once again atop the division at 370.3 run yards per game, and is coming off its best showing in its 23-year history in the FCS.
The Mustangs piled up 527 rushing yards in last Saturday's 59-47 win at Sacramento State as Joe Protheroe ran for 168 and Kori Garcia totaled 146 on just 12 attempts. Five Mustangs scored rushing touchdowns in the program's highest-scoring game since 2012.
“It's going to be a tough challenge for us handling what they do offensively,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said.
What they do is run the triple option, but they also throw a little bit just to keep defenses honest.
Quarterback Dano Graves has 408 yards on the ground to go with 15 passing touchdowns on just 97 attempts. His average of 11.2 yards per throw and 15.5 passing touchdown percentage are actually better than Gubrud's 9.6 and 9.2 – thought he's attempted 239 fewer passes.
The engine of the offense, though, is the ground game, and Cal Poly has several dangerous backs.
Protheroe leads the Big Sky with 921 rushing yards and averages 5.7 per carry while Garcia is fourth with 673 yards and is at 7.6 per attempt. Kyle Lewis has run for 561 yards and his average of 11 yards per carry is the best in the FCS among those with at least 50 attempts.
Rounding out the Mustangs' ground attack is Jared Mohamed, who has rushed for 237 yards – the exact same number as Eastern Washington's top running back, Jabari Wilson.
“They are totally different than what we faced,” Baldwin said of Cal Poly after going up against Montana's pass-first offense. “It's a challenge and they are playing really well. Facing different offenses is tough, but what makes them difficult to defend is when they are executing at a high level and they have the type of players within their offense that fit their system. That tells you they have recruited well, have developed their players and they are extremely well coached.”