SACRAMENTO — Joe Protheroe took the handoff up the middle and all he saw was green.
Not the green jerseys of the Sacramento State defenders, mind you, just 62 yards of green turf between the Cal Poly football team’s freshman fullback and his first career touchdown.
Then the six-foot, 230-pound bruiser showed off his speed, outrunning all the Hornets to the end zone for what was perhaps the defining score of Cal Poly’s 56-27 victory in front of 10,934 at Hornet Stadium.
“I just saw a huge gap by the line,” Protheroe said. “The line just opened that up. It was all up to me just to not get caught. Really, any one of our backs could have run thought that hole. I was just lucky enough being in on that play.
“I didn’t even realize until I went out on kickoff. I was like, ‘Wow, I just scored a crucial touchdown.’ ”
Protheroe’s run gave the Mustangs (4-3, 3-1 Big Sky Conference) a 28-20 lead and kicked off a third-quarter scoring run that saw them score three unanswered touchdowns and grow a one-point halftime edge into a 42-20 advantage to start the fourth quarter.
Protheroe finished with a career-high 72 yards on four carries, including a 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, sophomore slotback Kori Garcia added a career-high 141 yards and a 4-yard touchdown run on 13 attempts, and Brandon Howe, Chris Nicholls and hometown hero Dano Graves each added a rushing score as Cal Poly racked up 504 yards of total offense.
After Protheroe’s big run, Sacramento State fell apart altogether.
In the decisive third quarter, the Mustangs outgained the Hornets 230 yards to 26.
Sacramento State (4-4, 1-3 Big Sky) was 0 for 4 on third downs in the third and 0 for 1 on fourth down in the quarter.
Cal Poly ran for 209 yards in that third quarter, dominating on both sides of the ball unlike any game so far this season.
“To come out and do what we did in the second half,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said, “it was about the commitment we made to running the football, and then the play-action part of the game opened up, and we made plays in all phases of the game.
“And defensively, against that unit and what they do, to hold them to seven points in the second half is a pretty good showing.
It was a stark contrast to the Mustangs’ season opener.
Back on Aug. 28, Cal Poly mustered only 265 yards of total offense in a 28-10 loss at New Mexico State, where the Aggies celebrated the victory underneath a postgame fireworks display.
On Saturday, it was the Mustangs who were serenading the fans with fireworks going off above. As if ascribing to the smoke-’em-if-you’ve-got-’em philosophy, Sacramento State put on a bright and noisy light show even though the Hornets’ homecoming was a depressing blowout that had lines forming for the exits before the end of the third quarter.
It was a bizarre turn for a game that appeared as if it might go down to the wire after the first half.
Sacramento State actually had a 17-7 lead after a shifty 21-yard scramble for a touchdown by Hornets quarterback Garrett Safron, who became the program’s all-time leader in career passing yards with 306 yards and two touchdowns on 30-of-43 passing, with 9:39 left to go in the first half.
A senior, Safron now has 8,448 career passing yards, but the former walk-on also threw two costly interceptions against Cal Poly.
Still, the Hornets had four scoring drives in the first half. The Mustangs felt fortunate to be able to hold Sacramento State to field goals on two of them.
Touchdown passes — a 52-yarder to Roland Jackson and a 3-yarder to Kenny Mitchell — helped give Cal Poly a 21-20 halftime lead.
The Hornets were one of the top 10 scoring teams in the FCS coming into the game, averaging 41 points, which made their sudden collapse all the more unexpected.
“We knew we could hang with them,” said senior middle linebacker Nick Dzubnar, who tied a career high with 19 tackles, and had a 38-yard interception return and a 30-yard kick return after recovering on an onside kick. “We knew we could play with them. We knew what they were running. We had checks. We adjusted stuff, and after we had the adjustments and calmed down and did what we were suppseod to do, I think we succeeded and played them pretty tough.”
Before the defense parted for Protheroe’s big run, Sacramento State had just lost star linebacker Darnell Sankey to what appeared to be a leg injury on the previous Cal Poly possession.
Just minutes into the third quarter, Sankey already had 10 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery, and after he left and did not return, the Hornets never looked the same.
“We didn’t change anything, but obviously, he’s a great player. That would be like Nick (Dzubnar) not playing for us. We’ve still got guys that can play, but he (Dzubnar) is one of the best linebackers in the country. For them, that’s their best linebacker, so any time you lose a guy like that, you’re going to find out if backup can play at that level,” Walsh said.