Cal Poly secured a signature nonconference victory last week against a top-10 South Dakota State team, and the quarterback-wide receiver connection between Dano Graves and Kyle Lewis took an important step forward in the process.
The countless practice reps and extra time invested during the spring and summer seemed to pay off, with Graves completing 9-of-11 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in arguably the most efficient performance of his career.
The dynamic Lewis, who has played multiple positions within Cal Poly’s offense over the past three years, was on the receiving end of five of those passes, covering 122 yards with a 33-yard touchdown in the decisive fourth quarter. He also rushed for 66 yards and another score in the upset victory.
“My job out there is just to be the point guard,” said Graves, who is averaging 117 yards passing and 95.7 yards rushing through three games. “He’s one of those guys with exceptional speed, and we do whatever we can game-plan wise to get him in open space. If he gets in open space, good things are going to happen for us.”
Building upon that chemistry will be key for the Mustangs (2-1) when they host sixth-ranked Montana at 12:05 p.m. Saturday inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Despite a slew of new players, the Grizzlies (2-0) boast one of the stoutest defensive fronts in the Big Sky Conference.
They face a tall task against a Cal Poly team that ranks No. 1 in the FCS in rushing offense at 392.3 yards per game, led by the nation’s leading rusher in junior fullback Joe Protheroe. Don’t expect the Mustangs to go with a vastly different approach against Montana, but there’s certainly a chance Lewis will be targeted early and often.
“Kyle Lewis is going to be a big part of the offense and we hope he can continue to make big plays,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “But if he’s not, they better pay attention to him, And that helps the other 10 guys do what they do, too.”
A 6-foot, 210-pound junior with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type speed, Lewis appears more comfortable in his third season, having spent time at both slot back positions, wide receiver and kick returner during his career.
The biggest difference this fall, Lewis said, is the quarterback mentality first-year offensive coordinator Juston Wood brings to the play calling. Wood was a two-time all-Big Sky quarterback when he played under Walsh at Portland State in the early 2000s. He went on to play professionally in the Arena Football League before coming to Cal Poly eight years ago.
“I’m just glad we have the coaching staff this year that believes in the players that we have,” Lewis said. “I’m glad we got to show coach Walsh that we have the players that can actually make big plays like that.”
A graduate of San Diego’s San Marcos High School, Lewis has been a big-play threat since the day he stepped on campus. He’s one of the only players Walsh recruited as an all-around athlete, and there was a running joke that the coaching staff would compete in a pick-up basketball game to decide which side of the ball Lewis would play on when he arrived.
Looking at his career statistics, it seems the coaches made the right choice.
In 33 games, Lewis has recorded 114 touches for 1,577 yards and 12 touchdowns. He averages 13.8 yards per touch — 8.1 rushing, 17.4 receiving and 20.6 on kickoff returns — and scores a touchdown once every 9.5 times he gets the ball.
Pretty impressive numbers when you consider Lewis was largely recruited as a defensive back and played only a handful of games at running back as a high school senior.
“Coach (Aristotle Thompson) really is hounding in with the fundamentals as a running back, because I’m still learning things every single day,” Lewis said. “It’s good to be able to have that versatility and be able to go to both.”
Walsh said Graves is “playing absolutely as well as you could play right now,” and going blow for blow with the Jackrabbits last week gave the senior an extra shot of confidence.
When Graves isn’t leaning on Cal Poly’s arsenal of running backs, he can turn to Lewis and an athletic group of receivers that includes senior Carson McMurtrey, sophomore Kory Fox and redshirt freshmen J.J. Koski and Jake Smeltzer.
“We all kind of knew Dano was this type of player when he first got here,” Lewis said. “… I really think a lot of it is opportunity. He’s just being blessed that he has an offensive coordinator that’s letting him use all his skills. Dano is definitely our leader. We fall back on him on the field.”
Week 4: Cal Poly Mustangs Football
Who: Cal Poly Mustangs vs. Montana
When: 12:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium
Radio: ESPN 1280