Big Sky Conference

Protheroe’s bruising style key for Mustangs early on


Tim Walsh gets a consistent analysis from NFL scouts and opposing coaches alike when they speak with Cal Poly’s head coach about Joe Protheroe: man, does he make those five-yard gains look impressive.

Cal Poly’s 6-foot-1, 227-pound bruiser of a fullback has been a workhorse early on for the Mustangs. Protheroe rushed for 112 yards on 29 physical carries against Montana’s hard-hitting defense in a 20-19 victory. He managed the 100-yard performance without having a carry for more than eight yards. In Week 2, Cal Poly gave up two long runs in the fourth quarter as Arizona State escaped what was a 21-21 game with seven minutes to play with a 35-21 win. Protheroe again was a bulldozer, plowing his way to 130 yards on 28 carries, including just four carries of more than eight yards.

Through three games, Protheroe has 277 yards rushing and is averaging 92.3 yards per game for Cal Poly’s triple option offense, an attack that’s churning out 321.3 rushing yards per game as the Mustangs prepare to play No. 15 Montana State in Bozeman on Saturday.

Joe Protheroe at the bottom of the pile vs. Montana after a 6-yard gain

Joe Protheroe at the bottom of the pile vs. Montana after a 6-yard gain

“NFL scouts keep mentioning how good he is in tough yardage, saying they’ve never seen so many impressive four and five-yard gains. He’s 227 pounds and he’s a big, strong guy,” Walsh said. “He’s a football player and he likes the contact part of the game. It’s what he wants. It’s right up his alley to think of himself as a marked guy, a guy who wears a bull’s eye. He likes that.”

Last season, Brandon How carried the ball 183 times for 867 yards and 10 touchdowns in earning second-team All-Big Sky Conference honors from the Mustangs’ H-back position. In the triple option, the dive is of ultimate importance in order to stay ahead of the sticks and set up short yardage situations, especially on second and third downs, Walsh said.

“For our offense, we have to be good with that guy in the middle running the dive,” Walsh said. “He has to touch the ball 13 to 25 times every game. They are either going to take it away or they are going to pay a price for it. He has the ability to be an 1,100 or 1,200 yard rusher playing behind the quarterback and that’s where you will see him most of the time this weekend.”

Last week, Montana State fell in a shootout to Eastern Washington due in large part to poor tackling by the Bobcat defense. On Saturday, the Bobcats will try to get back on the horse against an offensive attack predicated on physicality, taking defenders off their feet and pounding the football without mercy.

Cal Poly sets the line-of-scrimmage with cut-blocking style

Cal Poly sets the line-of-scrimmage with cut-blocking style

“It’s like in the movie ‘Remember the Titans’ where they run five plays. It’s like the medicine the dentist gives you: Novocain,” MSU ninth-year defensive line coach Bo Beck said. “You have to play the cuts (blocks) and you have to be more physical than they are. That’s what we demand this week.”

Cal Poly Chris Brown was an All-Big Sky selection last season after rushing for a league quarterback record 1,265 yards on 249 carries, the second-most in the conference. He scored 17 rushing touchdowns as a junior and already has four as a senior. His 339 yards and 113 yards per game lead the Mustangs. Junior Kori Garcia also had a breakout season last fall, rushing for nearly 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s been largely limited this fall, averaging 3.0 yards per carry. As Cal Poly prepares to come to Bobcat Stadium, Protheroe is the element with a growing reputation and the one who jumps out on film to the Bobcats.

“He’s fun to watch,” MSU first-year defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said. “He’s exactly what you want at that fullback position where he fights for every yard. He falls forward every time he touches the football. I believe he has some rugby background to him and you can see it in the way he runs.”

Playing H-back is somewhat of a new role for the Concord, California product. At Clayton Valley Charter High, Protheroe played a sort of wing back in a shotgun offense in which split backs lined up on either side of the quarterback and executed zone-read elements between the tackles as well as a slew of sweeps outside the tackles.

Joe Protheroe takes the dive hand off

Joe Protheroe takes the dive hand off

Protheroe thrived, rushing for 3,014 yards and 34 touchdowns. He averaged 12.9 yards per carry on 234 carries, averaging 215 yards per game in piling up one of the top 25 rushing seasons in the history of the Golden State. Protheroe rushed for 100 yards 14 times, 200 yards seven times and had days of 427 yards and five touchdowns along with 306 yards on 17 carries and three scores. His record-breakin season earned him Offensive Player of the Year by the Bay Area News Group, MaxPreps All-NorCal, San Francisco Chronicle All-Metro First Team, Contra Costa Times All-East Bay Team, CIF-North Coast Section Player of the Year and Diablo Valley Athletic League MVP.

“Joe Protheroe is a good running back, period,” Walsh said. “He was a high school tailback that rushed for ungodly yards and was the Northern California offensive player of the year in high school. There’s a bigger and better role down the road for Joe Protheroe in our offense. He can run more than just the dive part of our offense and we are expecting him to do that as he matures.

“With his size and his speed, the expectations are big for him. It’s his job to meet those expectations.”

Protheroe gray shirted his first year out of high school before joining the Mustangs last fall. As a true freshman, he filled in behind Howe, rushing for 184 yards and a pair of touchdowns in spot duty.

Chris Brown and Joe Protheroe in Cal Poly backfield

Chris Brown and Joe Protheroe in Cal Poly shotgun set

“I like the H-back position because if there’s a cut back lane, you are there already,” Protheroe said. “You get a chunk of yards right away. It’s a quicker read at H-back so you have to hit it hard. As a running back, it helps me overall making reads faster. My mentality is to always fall forward and to try to break the first tackle at least. That’s our rules right there.”

Cal Poly has long been known for its fast-moving, hard-hitting defense. Protheroe made an impression with his teammates instantly upon getting carries in the Mustangs’ dynamic offense.

“He’s definitely a son of a gun,” Cal Poly senior captain linebacker Burton De Koning said. “He’s a thick dude and he likes to run the ball hard. He’s not trying to juke you. He wants to lower his shoulder down and deliver a blow. I’ve had my fair share of head to head contact with that kid. It’s nice to not have to go against the offense and deal with him all the time. That kid, he’s a gamer and he loves to play and he runs the ball hard.”

Story photos by Brooks Nuanez. Main photo courtesy of Cal Poly Athletics via All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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