Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh understood before the college football season began that the Mustangs’ schedule would be unforgiving every step of the way.
That sentiment couldn’t be more true through the first five weeks.
Playing its fourth opponent ranked in the top 20, Cal Poly wasn’t able to overcome a pair of costly first-half miscues en route to a 48-28 loss to No. 17 Montana in a Big Sky Conference game Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“It’s disappointing and I’ve got to take responsibility for it,” Walsh said. “We’re making some mistakes that are obviously critical. But our physicality and our effort tonight was really good.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The Mustangs (1-4, 0-2 Big Sky) saw their three-game winning streak against the Grizzlies that dates back to 2014 come to an end.
Meanwhile, Montana (4-1, 2-0 Big Sky) kept pace with Eastern Washington and Idaho State for first-place in the conference standings.
Protheroe continues to shine
Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe turned in another typically strong performance Saturday evening.
The 6-foot, 230-pound senior racked up 139 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries. Protheroe’s third straight 100-yard outing put him over 3,000 yards for his career.
Protheroe moved into fifth place in program history in career rushing yards, surpassing former standout quarterback Chris Brown (3,024).
Craig Young, who was inducted into Cal Poly’s athletics hall of fame last year, is the Mustangs’ career rushing leader with 4,205 yards.
Cal Poly could lean heavily on Protheroe the rest of the season after starting running back Broc Mortensen suffered a season-ending foot injury against Brown on Sept. 21.
Mortensen, a sophomore from Venutra, tallied 415 all-purpose yards through the first three games, including a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
In his place, sophomore Drew Hernandez had a career-high 135 yards on 14 carries against Montana. Hernandez averaged an eye-popping 9.6 yards per attempt.
“He was extremely solid tonight,” Walsh said.
Fumbles on fumbles
While Protheroe was a bright spot, Cal Poly continued to turn the ball over at an alarming rate.
Late in the first quarter, Montana All-American linebacker Josh Buss recovered the Mustangs third fumble of the game and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown, staking the Grizzlies to a 17-0 lead.
The visitors were never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
Walsh said he felt Cal Poly was every bit as good as Montana physically, but the untimely turnovers proved to be its undoing.
“You just can’t turn the ball over and we’ve done it two straight weeks,” Walsh said. “That game last week should have been a different game too, to be honest with you.”
The Mustangs also had two fumbles returned for touchdowns during their 53-point loss to Eastern Washington the week prior.
Cal Poly has fumbled 16 times and lost nine of them in five games this season.
Montana offense cruises
Grizzlies quarterback Dalton Sneed completed 23-of-32 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns to lead Montana offensively.
Samuel Akem was on the receiving end of five of those passes, including a key 54-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter that helped the Grizzlies take a 31-7 lead into halftime.
“We can’t give up big plays,” Walsh said.
Running back Adam Eastwood added a season-high 132 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Montana junior linebacker Dante Olson, who ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky and No. 3 in FCS in total tackles this season, recorded a game-high 24 stops.
The Griz stopped the Mustangs three times on fourth-and-short to help seal the victory.
Coming up next
Cal Poly goes back on the road next week to play Sacramento State at 6 p.m. Saturday inside Hornet Stadium.
The Hornets (2-2, 0-1 Big Sky) are coming off a 41-34 loss to Montana two weeks ago in Missoula.
Local news matters: We rely on readers like you more than ever before, and we currently offer free access to five stories a month. Support us further with a digital subscription to help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal