It’s safe to say Joe Protheroe will never forget this weekend.
Cal Poly’s All-American fullback rushed for a game-high 131 yards and two touchdowns Saturday evening, leading the Mustangs to their first win of the season, 38-16, over visiting San Diego at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Protheroe’s second 100-yard effort of the season and the sixth of his career will be a fond memory, to be sure. But it figures to be vastly overshadowed by what happened off the field 24 hours earlier.
Protheroe and his wife, Ashley, celebrated the birth of their second daughter, Jordyn, at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center around 5 p.m. Friday night. Sitting in his post-game press conference, Protheroe looked down at a hospital bracelet wrapped around his right wrist and couldn’t help but smile.
“It just motivates me, having another baby,” Protheroe said. “It really motivates me.”
The 6-foot, 225-pound Protheroe was superb as sophomore a year ago, when his breakout performance warranted first-team all-Big Sky Conference honors and he was named a third-team All-American by STATS FCS.
The success Protheroe has experienced in college won’t surprise those who’ve followed him since his prep days at Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord. Protheroe set a school record and ranked third in the entire state with more than 3,000 yards rushing and 34 touchdowns as a senior in 2012.
He’s made an impressive transition into the fullback position within Cal Poly’s triple-option offense, and hasn’t looked back since.
“Joe’s one of my favorites on the team, first of all,” senior quarterback Dano Graves said. “He’s one of those guys where you can tell he’s a father. Just the way he cares about others. I’m so happy for him. He’s got his second daughter.”
With Protheroe leading the way, the Mustangs (1-1) piled up 354 rushing yards en route to their fifth consecutive win against the Toreros (1-1).
Graves provided balance offensively, completing five of his eight pass attempts for 130 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 98 yards and another score in a strong all-around performance.
After falling behind by a field goal late in the first half, the Mustangs went on a 21-0 run to put the game away.
San Diego, a program that’s won seven Pioneer Football League championships in the past 11 years, made a strong push early but couldn’t sustain that effort in the second half.
“Give them credit. I think they are a good football team,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “I think they’re better than they’ve been the last couple times we’ve played them. They’re diverse on offense and they play extremely hard on defense.”
Cal Poly built a 10-0 lead in the first quarter on the strength of Casey Sublette’s 39-yard field goal and Protheroe’s 5-yard scoring run on the ensuing possession.
The lead didn’t last long, as San Diego sophomore quarterback Anthony Lawrence threw a pair of touchdown passed to tight end Ross Dwelley in the second quarter.
A bruising 6-5, 240-pound junior, Dwelley caught a 3-yard touchdown pass early in the second, and pulled down another 13-yard scoring strike with 50 seconds remaining in the first half.
It looked like the score would stay 13-10 going into halftime, particularly with the Mustangs struggling to move the ball on their two previous possessions.
But with six seconds remaining in the second quarter, Graves connected with running back Kyle Lewis on a pass over the middle, which Lewis quickly turned into a 57-yard scoring play.
“That’s one of those bitter sweet moments,” said Graves, who was shaken up for several moments on the play, “when you’re on the ground and you don’t know what’s going on but you can just hear the crowd.”
Walsh said Lewis’ long catch-and-run was “probably the game changer” and allowed Cal Poly to build a two-touchdown lead early in the second half.
He hopes some of that momentum will carry over into practice this week as the Mustangs prepare to go on the road to face a top-10 South Dakota State team known to have a passionate fan base.
“They’re legit,” Walsh said. “I’m excited to see how we play and get on the road and play a team of that quality.”
Cal Poly 38, San Diego 16
Top performers: Dano Graves 130 yards passing, 98 rushing, 3 TDs; Joe Protheroe 18 carries, 131 yards, 2 TDs; Chris Santini 9 tackles, 1.5 TFL
Key stat: After fumbling five times against Nevada, the Mustangs did not fumble once on Saturday.
X Factor: Kyle Lewis’ 57-yard catch-and-run touchdown late in the second quarter sparked a 21-0 run by the Mustangs.