Cal Poly quarterback Dano Graves delivered a simple message to his teammates Saturday night as they prepared to take the field at Alex G. Spanos Stadium for what could be the final time of the 2016 season.
“Just fight,” the fifth-year senior said, “and do it for 60 minutes.”
By the time the final whistle blew on No. 21 Cal Poly’s thrilling 55-48 win against Northern Colorado, Graves’ fingerprints were all over the Mustangs’ season-saving victory. He scratched and clawed and fought to arguably his best performance in a season full of memorable moments.
Graves completed 14 of his 15 pass attempts for 191 yards and two touchdowns, carried the ball 18 times for a season-high 147 yards and a 42-yard touchdown run with 2:03 remaining that kept Cal Poly’s FCS playoff hopes alive.
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“He’s a great young man and that, to me, really drives who he is as a football player,” head coach Tim Walsh said, admitting that he’s running out of adjectives to describe the senior leader.
“He knows who he is. He has tremendous values, and he really, really believes in himself and he believes in the game. The game will take of itself if you just go play it.”
The Mustangs concluded the regular season 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky Conference, good for fourth place in the final conference standings behind Eastern Washington, North Dakota and Weber State.
Cal Poly will learn its postseason fate early Sunday morning when ESPNU televises its FCS playoff selection show at 8 a.m. Walsh said he believes the Mustangs will make the 24-team field given their difficult nonconference record and top-ranked strength of schedule.
“Our résumé says we should be playing next week,” Walsh said. “I’m fairly confident, but I’ve been there, done that, before, too. So I’ll wait until I see it.”
Holding onto a 48-41 lead with less than 3 minutes remaining, Graves broke free around the right side and used a key down-field block by Kory Fox to give the Mustangs a two-touchdown lead.
The Bears (6-5 overall, 4-4 Big Sky) would answer with quarterback Kyle Sloter’s sixth touchdown pass of the night with 23 seconds left in the game. But the ensuing onside kick went out of bounds, and Graves took a knee in victory formation.
Graves said “everyone is really excited” to get up early and see if they’re officially playoff-bound.
“That’s something that you don’t get every season,” Graves said. “Having this opportunity alone, I think it’s going to be great for this team. I think this next week will be great for this team.”
Cal Poly piled up 443 yards rushing a 67 carries, an average of 6.6 yards per attempt.
All-American fullback Joe Protheroe rushed for 110 yards and one touchdown, marking the seventh time this season he surpassed the 100-yard mark. Protheroe finished the regular season as the Big Sky leader in rushing yards with a 1,212 and 11 touchdowns.
“I just can’t wait to see my brothers tomorrow and see the results,” Protheroe said. “I’m real confident about what it’s going to be tomorrow.”
Northern Colorado had no answer for Cal Poly’s runs to the perimeter, an element of the Mustangs’ offense that lacked at time in recent weeks. Cal Poly rushed for 188 yards in the first quarter alone, two yards short of its total against Weber State the previous week.
Graves returned to form in a big way, completing his first six passes and connecting with freshman J.J. Koski on a 30-yard touchdown strike midway through the second quarter. His second touchdown pass of the first half landed in the hands of junior Kyle Lewis, who returned from knee injury to give Cal Poly an offensive spark.
Senior running back DJ Peluso delivered another strong performance, running for 88 yards and two touchdowns, including a career-long 45-yard scoring run. Kori Garcia also rushed for 88 yards and two scores as six Mustangs reached the end zone at least once.
Sloter was superb for the Bears, completing 26 passes for 438 yards and six touchdowns. Stephen Miller had nine receptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns, and Hakeem Deggs caught seven passes for 128 yards and three scores.
“If we could put it all together we’d be a pretty devastating football team,” Walsh said, “and maybe that will happen if we get the opportunity to continue to play.”