TEMPE, Ariz. — Joe Protheroe and Jared Mohamed took two very different paths to the Cal Poly backfield, and together they’ve formed an exciting combination of what looks to be a key strength for the Mustangs this fall.
The two sophomore fullbacks ran their way through Arizona State’s defensive front time and again Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium. One week removed from running for a career-high 112 yards during Cal Poly’s season-opening victory against Montana, Protheroe rushed for a 130 yards and a touchdown in a 35-21 loss to the Sun Devils.
Mohamed proved to be an equally capable reserve, tallying 75 rushing yards on 11 carries while averaging a team-best 6.8 yards per run. With those two grinding out hard yards, Cal Poly rushed for 284 yards in its first game against an active member of the Pac-12 Conference.
“We do what the defenses allows us to do and they allowed us to pound them between the tackles,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “It does maybe take away our explosiveness, but it doesn’t take away our opportunities to win ballgames.”
The Mustangs (1-1) had Arizona State fans in a frenzy for three quarters with their methodical offensive approach and opportunistic defense. It wasn’t until ASU scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns that the more than 46,000 fans were able to breathe easy, knowing the Sun Devils had avoided becoming the latest Power 5 school to be upset by an FCS opponent.
Coming off a Week 1 performance that featured 29 carries — matching his entire total from the 2014 season — Protheroe ran the ball a game-high 28 times and averaged 4.6 per attempt.
“Honestly, I’ve been looking forward to this game for like three years,” Protheroe said. “So, yeah, it was a little different, man. I’m sure ASU saw us on the schedule and were probably like, ‘here’s another FCS school.’
“I think we came and we just showed them that we can play ball.”
For the 6-foot, 225-pound Protheroe, that much has never been in doubt.
As a prep senior at Clayton Valley Charter High in Concord, Protheroe was one of the most decorated players in California. He was the state’s third-leading rusher in 2012, running for a school-record 3,014 yards and 34 touchdowns in 14 games.
In guiding Clayton Valley to its first North Coast Section Division II title in school history, Protheroe averaged more than 215 yards per game and nearly 13 yards per carry. In 234 rushing attempts, he fumbled once.
Cal Poly and Sacramento State both offered Protheroe a scholarship, and San Jose State, Fresno State, Montana State and Oregon extended walk-on offers.
Protheroe didn’t sign his letter of intent to play for the Mustangs until February 2013 and joined the team a year later for the start of fall camp in 2014. He played in all 12 games as a true freshman — rare for a skill position player at Cal Poly — and has emerged as the Mustangs top rusher early this season.
“When we moved Jared from linebacker to fullback last spring, we felt very good about our fullback situation,” Walsh said. “We thought we had two really good players and they’re different. Joe’s probably a step faster, but Jared plays very quick and makes good north and south decisions.
“I think they’re a really good combination.”
Cal Poly fans are plenty familiar with the Mohamed family. Jared’s older brothers Marty, Kyle and Dylan all played football for the Mustangs, though he is the first member of the family to play on offense.
Mohamed, who celebrated his 20th birthday on Saturday, grew up visiting Alex G. Spanos Stadium to watch his brothers. Like them, he was recruited as a linebacker out of Brawley High and had aspirations of carrying on a strong family tradition at that position.
Marty Mohamed was a four-year starter and earned Great West Conference defensive player of the year accolades for the Mustangs before pursuing a career in the Canadian Football League.
“It’s definitely been a dream of mine to play for this team,” Jared Mohamed said. “I never thought I’d be playing on the offensive side of the ball. I’m just happy to get on the field and contribute.”
With defenses in the Big Sky Conference focused on stopping senior quarterback Chris Brown, having two fullbacks eager to grind out yards between the tackles could pay dividends during a long 12-game season.
“It was good that we got a chance to show that we can adjust to whatever they gave us,” said Brown, who ran and passed for a touchdown against Arizona State. “I’m very excited that we can show that we have backs like Joe Protheroe and Jared Mohamed that can run the ball and run it efficiently.”