Tim Walsh succinctly provided an idea of what to expect from first-time starter Dano Graves today.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Cal Poly quarterback hasn’t played much since taking Folsom High to a CIF Division 3 state title in 2010, when he led an upset over a Gardena Serra team that featured two wideouts headed to USC, a quarterback on his way to SMU and several others who would play college football.
Go look at that tape, Walsh said. Weber State, the Mustangs’ opponent at Alex G. Spanos Stadium for today’s 6 p.m. kickoff, probably did.
“In our opinion, you go back to the championship game,” Walsh said. Serra was “the who’s who of high school football, and they beat them because of who Dano is.”
A hip injury made the decision to replace two-game starter and preseason No. 3 quarterback Chris Brown easier coming off a disappointing home loss to Yale and into the matchup with the beleaguered Wildcats (1-5, 0-2 Big Sky Conference).
So, Cal Poly (2-3, 1-0 Big Sky) will give the ball to Graves, a sophomore Air Force transfer who will make his first collegiate start.
Graves’ only action since the victory over Serra was five games with the Falcons’ prep team playing against junior college-level competition before spraining his knee and a couple of possessions at the end of this year’s season opener against San Diego — where he and the Mustangs only went backward a yard and he sprained his ankle.
If not for that late injury against the Toreros, it might have been Graves playing these past few games after original starter Vince Moraga was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the following game at Fresno State.
A return to the form that made Graves a high school record-breaker and the MaxPreps.com national player of the year would be timely for Cal Poly, which will likely need a top-three finish in the Big Sky to keep its playoff hopes alive after falling out of both major FCS top-25 polls this week.
In that state title game, Graves passed for three touchdowns and ran for three more in a 40-28 victory over Serra and receivers Marqise Lee and George Farmer and quarterback Conner Preston.
To start the fourth quarter, Folsom scored three times in 28 seconds to turn a tight game into a runaway.
Graves raised his state record for total touchdowns to 85 and on a cloudy, rain-soaked day at the Home Depot Center in Carson was the clear hero of a game filled with prospects with bigger names and even larger statures.
“Even though he’s not the biggest dude, the guy was the national high school player of the year,” Walsh said.
Considering all of that, Walsh said Graves is expected to “come in and run our team and run it the way we’re capable of running our offense and being extremely efficient.”
Standing in the way is Weber State, which has allowed the most points in the FCS, ranking 122nd out of 122 teams by allowing 49.2 points per game.
The Wildcats also rank in the bottom five in the country in passing yards allowed, red zone defense, passing-efficiency defense and total defense, and rank just as poorly or only slightly better in plenty of offensive categories.
Going into a 41-19 victory over Weber State last week, Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin was concerned about an aspect of the Wildcats’ defense that would also concern Cal Poly’s option-running attack.
“Weber State continues to be one of those programs that is to me really physical,” Baldwin said. “Their front seven going
into the game was one of the most active, well-coached in terms of both talent and effort. We knew that would be a challenge in terms of what we could do offensively.”
But just like Cal Poly has gone through injuries — the Mustangs are on to their third quarterback and will be without receiver Willie Tucker and possibly cornerback Vante Smith-Johnson — Weber State is limping as well.
Linebackers Anthony Morales and Luke King, the third- and fourth-leading tacklers on the team, were hurt against the Eagles and are considered questionable to start in the Wildcats’ 4-3 defensive front today.
Another wild card: The Wildcats’ schedule, which Walsh called the toughest in the Big Sky to this point.
Like the Mustangs, Weber State has played two FBS programs, Utah of the Pac-12 and Utah State of the Mountain West Conference.
Two of the Wildcats’ other losses came to Eastern Washington and McNeese State, two teams ranked in the top 10 of the current FCS media poll.
“That has no bearing on the way we coach or the way we coach our kids,” Weber State coach Jody Sears said. “We do know this: The past does not equal the future. We all know that, and like I say, we have got to just stay steadfast in our mission and our plan, and continue to grow these kids and grow this team to get better each week.
“You can look at our record and look at who we played and look at the stats, but it has no bearing on what’s going to happen (to) night down in San Luis.”