BOZEMAN — Montana State has only played one triple option team in its two-plus seasons playing for head coach Jeff Choate and his staff. And that team was Kennesaw State in a November non-conference game, not Big Sky Conference rival Cal Poly.
Last weekend, Choate sat in the team room at MSU with senior Zach Wright. Montana State’s head coach asked his captain defensive tackle a pointed question about the Bobcats’ upcoming game against the Mustangs on Saturday in Bozeman.
“I asked Zach Wright this yesterday in the team room: ‘What do you want to go against? Do you want to go against a team that is going to throw the ball 80 times a game or a team that is going to challenge you as a man and say, ‘Let’s go.’
“Zach just smiled and said, ‘I like this kind of party.’”
Montana State nose tackle Tucker Yates made his first career start against Cal Poly in MSU’s 45-21 victory over the Mustangs in September of 2015. Yates will make his 31st career start on Saturday but just his second going against CP.
On Saturday, Yates’ job will not be complicated. That does not mean his job will be easy. Cal Poly senior fullback Joe Protheroe has rushed for 3,613 yards and 32 touchdowns in his decorated career, including a Big Sky-best 1,152 yards (144 per game) and 10 touchdowns during Cal Poly’s 3-5 season.
“It’s the same thing for me every time,” Yates said with a chuckle. “I have to tackle the dive. Play the cut, play the double team, stay low, tackle the dive.
“It’s a brutal game but it’s kind of a fun game to play in because I get to make so many tackles usually and be involved a lot more.”
Protheroe has carried the ball at least 33 times and rushed for at least 128 yards each of the last six weeks. His season highs came in a 44-15 win over Brown; Protheroe set career highs with 43 carries for 228 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 217 yards on 39 carries in last week’s 38-28 win over Northern Arizona last week.
In 2015, Protheroe was a sophomore He rushed for 156 yards and a touchdown to spearhead a Cal Poly attack that totaled 356 yards on the ground. Yates, a 6-foot, 295-pounder widely considered Montana State’s strongest player, distinctly remembers the first time he went heads up with the 5-foot-11, 225-pound stick of dynamite that is Cal Poly’s fullback.
“I remember shedding a cut block nice, but I was on my heels, they hand off the dive and he just hits me right under the chin and I fall down,” Yates said. “I remember how physical of a runner he is and how downhill he comes at that fullback spot.
“My position, I can’t fall asleep tackling that dive. If they haven’t run the dive in awhile, but bang, they give it there on the dive and it’s out the gate for 60, that’s on me because that’s my job.”
Montana State defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak has only schemed up a triple option for the Bobcat defense one time: Last November’s 16-14 loss to Kennesaw State at Bobcat Stadium
The Owls manufactured an 89-yard drive on the first possession of the game capped by a 2-yard run to take a 7-0 lead. Montana State held Kennesaw to field goals the rest of the way but the final 3-pointer was a heartbreaker. Kennesaw rushed for 346 yards total, including 78 yards on 20 plays on a drive that lasted more than 10 minutes. The Owls converted two different first downs as savvy quarterback Chandler Burks checked into the right play at the line of scrimmage time and again, setting up a 37-yard field goal by Justin Thompson for the final margin of victory.
“As much as it pains me to turn that tape on from that Kennesaw game, it is a great reference point for a game like this,” Gregorak said. “I know Poly is probably watching the heck out of that game, seeing what we did, how we adjusted to certain things. Like any football game, but in particular the triple option, it’s a chess match.”
Burks finished with 149 yards on 34 carries while Jake McKenzie, the dive running back similar to Protheroe, finished with 116 yards on 20 carries.
“I’m sure they will watch that game to scout us, too,” Choate said. “That’s the only true triple option team that we’ve played. There are a lot of similarities. The only thing that I think is different is I think the (Khaleel) Jenkins kid is a better pure athlete than the kid who played for Kennesaw.
“That kid (Burks), you could tell he played in the same system in high school, same system in college. He didn’t look to the sideline. The chess match was between our coaching staff and him. On Saturday, the coaching staff from Cal Poly, Jenkins is going to stand up and look to the sideline, they are going to run it.”
Cal Poly’s triple option is no different than the standard if not increasingly rare attack. One of the only differences is the physicality, durability and explosiveness of Protheroe brings to the table. The two-time All-American led the Big Sky in rushing with 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior in 2016. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in Cal Poly’s season-opener last season, taking a redshirt instead.
This season, he has been a physical marvel. He already has 252 carries, the exact same number of rushes he had in 12 games in 2016, a slate that included a playoff game. Protheroe has rushed for at last 100 yards in six straight and surpassing 200 twice.
“He’s a long strider, a little bit of an upright runner than a lot of what you call Academy fullbacks,” Choate said. “He just has a great feel for it.
“How many times do you think he’s run that play? He’s carried the ball 252 times this year and he’s a fifth-year senior. He’s been there forever. Think about the practice reps. He’s just got an unbelievable feel for finding that crease.”
Cal Poly is rushing for 323.6 yards per contest, including 379 against Big Sky competition. CP has surpassed 400 yards rushing twice, including a season-high 462 yards on the ground in a 41-27 win over Sac State. And it all starts with Protheroe.
“I don’t know if people understand what it’s like to play that position,” Walsh said. “If he’s carrying it 34 or 35 times a game, he is getting hit 50 or 55 times a game. He doesn’t practice until Thursdays in reality. He does some things against air on Tuesday and Wednesday but he doesn’t get hit again until Saturday. He’ll do all the team periods and everything but we don’t need to wear him out more.
“In my opinion, he’s as good as any player in this league and as valuable to what we we are as anybody else is to their team in this league. (NAU head coach) Jerome Souers hit it on the head. He said, ‘The one thing about them is their coach believes in their offensive line but they have a fullback who really, truly believes and trusts the system and everything goes through Joe Protheroe.”
The last time Gregorak called a game against Cal Poly, he was in his last season as the defensive coordinator for the Montana Grizzlies. In the game following UM’s memorable 38-35 win over No. 1 North Dakota State, Cal Poly kicker Alex Vega hit a game-winning field goal to lift the Mustangs to a 20-19 victory over the Griz.
“I’ve been a part of teams that played really well against it, teams that really struggled against it, teams that struggled and still won the game,” Gregorak said. “Last year, I thought we played Kennesaw really well. The last eight minutes are the ones that kill me the most. We had them to two or three third downs, even one fourth down, you get off the field, who knows what your offense can do with a little more time on the clock. But overall, we held them to one touchdowns and field goals. And they have proven to be a very, very good team.
“When I played in the old Big XII (as a linebacker at Colorado), half the schools were triple option in some form. It is pain in the butt, not going to lie. But it’s kind of fun to prepare for too. It’s your smallest call sheet of the year. You don’t have a ton of stuff because you only have so much to rep. Your kids can only learn so much in three or four days. I think it’s a fun challenge.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.