As college football continues its high-octane, throw-it-all-over-the-field evolution, Cal Poly’s triple-option offense offers a rare, throwback look for modern defenses.
Sixth-ranked Eastern Washington (2-1), which opens Big Sky Conference play Saturday against the Mustangs at 1:05 p.m. at Roos Field, has had the chore of preparing for the run-it-all-day scheme, just days after trying to slow down a vastly different foe – Washington State and its Air Raid offense.
Cal Poly (1-2) aims to use its physical backfield, experienced offensive front and crafty misdirection against an EWU program that’s won its past five meetings with the Mustangs, who average 230 yards a game on the ground.
Opening the season with losses to top-ranked North Dakota State and No. 7 Weber State – two of the better FCS defenses – kept Cal Poly from racking up its usual gaudy rushing numbers.
“It’s very challenging to defend,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said of Cal Poly’s triple-option offense, which combined for 895 rushing yards against the Eagles in 2015 and 2016. “And it’s even harder when they have good players.”
Cal Poly running back Joe Protheroe, a Walter Payton Award candidate in 2017 before suffering an early-season knee injury, is one of the best ball carriers in the nation.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Protheroe has racked up nearly 3,000 rushing yards, and he’s only played in two full seasons. He averaged 120 yards in the Mustangs’ last two losses to EWU, a 42-41 overtime decision in 2015 and a 42-21 win in 2016. The teams didn’t play each other last season.
EWU defensive end Jim Townsend is one of a dozen or so defensive players who faced Cal Poly in 2016. Containing Protheroe will be key, he said.
“He runs hard. He’s a tough, physical player,” Townsend said. “We just have to keep hitting him, go for his legs and get him on the ground. Hopefully, he tires out.”
Cal Poly passed the ball all of a combined 17 times in the last two meetings with EWU. In the Mustangs’ 44-15 rout of Ivy League doormat Brown, quarterback Khaleel Jenkins, who is essentially a 6-2, 215-pound running back, completed 5 of 9 passes for 84 yards.
“You know what they’re going to do – run the ball,” Townsend said. “You have to be disciplined in everything you do. They’re going to be physical up front. It’s going to be a good test for us. We just need to come out and be physical, and let it rip.”
Conversely, Cal Poly’s defensive front is young and relatively inexperienced, and has given up 248 rushing yards a game. This bodes well for a balanced EWU offense that ranks third in the FCS in total yards (1,633).
The Eagles average 240 yards on the ground and 303 through the air. The Mustangs have yet to face a passing quarterback as efficient as Gage Gubrud.
Gubrud, an All-American who has passed for more than 10,000 yards and 83 touchdowns, totaled 357 yards and four touchdowns the 2016 win at Cal Poly.
Longtime Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said EWU is loaded with weapons and experience.
“Their offense is explosive and efficient,” said Walsh, who led Cal Poly to a conference title in 2012 and the playoffs in 2016. “(Gubrud) is very athletic and a good passer. They can do a lot of things.
“Defensively, they also have a lot of experience and good players, too, and with some former coaches that now work at Eastern (defensive ends coach Eti Ena), it helps them prepare for what we do.”
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