Posted: Nov 21, 2018
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly didn't claim the Big Sky Conference title or earn a spot in the playoffs or achieve a winning record.
There were, however, a lot of positives during the 2018 football season upon which the Mustangs can build for future campaigns.
This year's 5-6 record represents a four-win improvement over a year ago. Cal Poly finished 4-4 in Big Sky games for a sixth-place tie with Montana in the 13-team league. The Mustangs won four of their last six games following a 1-4 start, building some momentum heading into the offseason and the 2019 campaign.
And Joe Protheroe went on a record-breaking binge that didn't end until the final plays of the 2018 season.
"No one can match Joe's passion and love for the game. He truly loves the game of football," 10th-year Mustang head coach Tim Walsh said after the senior fullback earned first-team All-Big Sky honors for the third time. "He plays with that love and passion every game and he is as tough as they come — big, strong and faster than people think."
Protheroe shattered the single-season rushing record at Cal Poly with 1,810 yards and the career mark with 4,271 yards. He scored 35 career touchdowns on the ground, three shy of the school record, and his nine 100-yard games this fall were one off the mark while his four 200-yard performances broke the standard. Protheroe finished with 23 career 100-yard games and five 200-yard contests, both school records, and his 4,271 career yards are No. 8 in the Big Sky record book.
The Walter Payton Award finalist finished No. 1 in the Big Sky and Football Championship Subdivision with his 1,810 yards and is No. 2 among active rushers in the FCS with his 4,271 career yards. Protheroe averaged 35.5 carries and 183.1 yards over eight conference games and is one of six Mustangs with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons.
"Five years went by fast but he definitely has left his footprints on Cal Poly football," said Walsh. "Joe is one of the best players I've coached in 40 plus years!"
Senior cornerback Dominic Frasch (pictured at left) led the nation with 1.9 passes defended per game and led the Mustangs with three interceptions. Senior kicker Alex Vega did not miss an extra point (39 of 39) and was near perfect in field goals, making 11 of 12. Sophomore linebacker Matt Shotwell led the team with his 90 total tackles, tied for No. 3 in the Big Sky.
As a team, Cal Poly was first in the Big Sky and fourth in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 331 yards per game. The Mustangs also led the FCS in time of possession (34:48), was fifth in third-down conversions (50.3 percent) and was one of the least-penalized teams in the country.
That's the good news.
What hurt Cal Poly the most in 2018 were the 15 lost fumbles, all in the first nine games, and what Walsh said was "how we tackled." Those 15 lost fumbles are the most in the FCS.
"The season was a little bit frustrating in that, if we held onto the football a little bit better and tackled a little bit better, take away four or five quarters and our season would have looked a lot different," said Walsh. "We took ourselves out of games by how we tackled and how we played with the football against some good football teams. You can't do that and expect to win.
"Fortunately, we continued to improve and I thought we got better as the year progressed and at the end of the year there were a lot of things to be positive about," Walsh added. "At a certain point of time, the best we could have been was 4-4 and that's where we ended up. Considering the difficulties you have in this league and where you play and who you play, at least it was a positive way to finish."
Cal Poly lost two fumbles in seven of its first nine games. Four were returned for touchdowns, including two by Eastern Washington. The Mustangs did not fumble the ball at all in their final two games, winning both at home against then-No. 24 Idaho State and defending Big Sky co-champion Southern Utah.
"Putting the ball on the ground and how unfortunate we were where we put the ball on the ground — a lot of them were picked up and returned for touchdowns and others in areas where touchdowns might be scored," Walsh said. "The offense needed to change and it did. Take those fumbles away and overall I thought we played pretty well offensively. Unfortunately those fumbles played a huge part in whether you win or lose.
"On the defensive side of the ball, I think we started to grow up a little bit. We were extremely young and we played young early on. We still made some young mistakes as the year rolled on, but you can definitely see the improvement for the future," Walsh added. "There are nine returning starters on defense and there's an opportunity there for us to be much improved a year from now which is definitely going to help us."
Cal Poly played eight games against teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at one time or another this season. Sacramento State earned votes in a preseason poll while Southern Utah earned a share of the Big Sky title in 2017. Despite the difficult schedule, the 14th-toughest in the nation according to Jeff Sagarin of USA Today, the Mustangs managed a four-win improvement over 2017.
"We had players with senior leadership," said Walsh. "Harry Whitson (pictured at right), Khaleel Jenkins, Anders Turner — those guys were strong leaders and unbelievably good. Even Joe Protheroe and Kitu Humphrey in their own way. They're quiet but strong. And there were other seniors who really stepped up to the plate from a year ago, including Malcolm Davis, who did a really good job, buying in and doing the things we needed to do. There was a attitude of change in their mind.
"They were frustrated that the season didn't end better, but I think they look at it like their leadership gave us the opportunity to head in the right direction in the future," Walsh added. "They had a lot to do with who we are and how we were able to handle the tough losses with some tough opponents early in the year. Give those guys a lot of credit for how we were able to keep the team staying focused and staying on the next game and seeing if we can get better. I definitely think we did get better as the year progressed."
The Mustangs did not achieve their goals of a winning season, second Big Sky title and a berth in the FCS playoffs for the fifth time since 2005. An overall mark of 5-6 was below the team's expectations.
"It was disappointing," Walsh admitted. "I really felt the Montana and Montana State games were very winnable games for us. You take the fumbles out of the game in the third quarter and we totally dominated the game against Montana State in the second half. I think we could have won that game. You can say the same thing about the Montana game. The fumbles took us out of the game and still we were able to battle back in both games. Unfortunately that wasn't good enough. Just those two games alone change our whole season.
"UC Davis had one explosive quarter (31 points in second quarter) and that made it 31-10 at halftime and that's tough to come back from," Walsh added. "The fumbles early in the Eastern Washington game allowed them to take a big lead after we rushed for 229 yards in the first half. I just think that there were some things that happened that made the season a little more frustrating. Not just the fumbles, but the tackling was really poor and we blew some coverages.
"Winning four of our last six is definitely a good start to next year."
Cal Poly will lose 16 seniors. Jenkins (pictured at left) capped his Mustang tenure with a career-high five touchdown passes against Southern Utah and rose from No. 11 to the top in the Big Sky in passing efficiency this fall as he completed 52 percent of his passes (46 of 89) for 777 yards and nine scores, all in the final four games.
Other seniors on the roster include linebackers Turner (32 tackles) and Patrick Walker (26 tackles), offensive linemen Whitson, Sam Ogee and Zach Shallcross, and kickers Vega and Casey Sublette.
Who will step up and fill those positions?
Fullback — "Trey Nahhas has been waiting his turn and we'll see how he does," said Walsh. "Duy Tran-Sampson has all the attributes you look for, size and speed, but we have to see him do it and do it on a consistent basis. I think true freshman Ryan Rivera did some really good things, and there will be another true freshman, Dusty Frampton, who we grayshirted this year and led the state in rushing his junior and senior years in high school. He's a lot like Protheroe, a big tailback that we believe can be a really good player for us. Those four guys will all be here in the spring and we'll sort them out."
Quarterback — "We're looking at a really good battle here. Jake Jeffrey is going to be a guy we can win with. He's smart and can do all the right things to get us in the right place. And we've got two guys who have some size and speed in true freshman Jalen Hamler and redshirt freshman Kyle Reid. Those guys will really get a great opportunity in the spring to see how they separate themselves or if they do separate themselves.
"I don't want to say I never really played quarterback by committee, but when we had injuries in the past, like with Dano Graves and Chris Brown, it was always great to have at least two guys who were definitely similar as far as their athletic ability and I think Hamler and Reid have all the athletic ability in the world. How much they grasp the offense and how well they can throw the ball, especially the deep ball, will probably separate them as to who is No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3."
Offensive Line — "There are some questions there, no doubt about it, but there are some really good players there as well. We have some tradition there on the offensive line, even though I've had three offensive line coaches in the last five years. These guys have set a standard on how to play. Guys like Wade Willet, Nico DiFronzo, D.J. Stuckey and Daniel Machado have definitely bought into that. We're going to need those guys to step up and be the real deal.
"It's going to be interesting to see how the whole thing shakes out. We started three juniors (Tyler Whisenhunt, Apefai Taifane and Paul Trujillo-Langdon) and those three guys are going to have to be that same guy that Harry was and lead the way as far as the tradition on the offensive line. I feel comfortable with the seven or eight guys here now. We might add a junior college guy and one more freshman, but we still have 16 or 17 offensive linemen returning."
Linebackers — "That position has some really good young players, such as Corey Thomas, Fenton Will and Dustin Grein, and is pretty solid for the future," Walsh said. "Jayson Lee will come back for his senior year along with Shotwell (pictured at left below) and Nik Navarro (team-leading five sacks, 83 total tackles) and we think Matt Wright has some really special athletic talent.
Defensive Backs — "We lose Frasch and Rosales but Kam Dennis has started a lot of games for us already and he will be back after surgeries and everything else he had to deal with physically," Walsh said. "Daniel Fox didn't take a snap at practice and we were counting on him to be in the mix this year. He will come back as a redshirt junior and will help us. Kevin Howell, Carter Nichols, Bradley Mickey and Sharky Reza have played a lot of downs, so there are four or five guys here right now who we feel are pretty good."
Kickers — "With Sublette and Vega, we were really fortunately to have two guys who were so equal in almost everything they do. It's really hard to separate them. It was tough for Casey with his injury but he was still able to punt for us. I was glad that Alex got a chance to play for us. It was one of those tough situations and they will be tough to replace. Mitch Souza returns and we're also recruiting a high school kicker. We definitely need a kickoff guy and a placekicker."
The youngest group of Mustangs this fall played on the defensive line. True freshman Jojo Falo, redshirt freshmen Pono Faaagi, Myles Cecil and Stanton Manumaleuna, sophomore Saia Fonongaloa and transfer Brando Phillips all shared starting duties on the three-man defensive front.
"They progressed very well and we're going to need those guys to be THE guys for us next year," Walsh said. "Phillips wasn't eligible until the middle of the season and he will be a really good player for us. And six or seven others had a tremendous opportunity to get better and I think every guy got better.
"Cecil has a special talent. If we can get him to be a little more disciplined in his understanding of what his responsibilities are, he could be a really great player," Walsh added. "As much as they were young, they got a lot of downs as freshmen, and we're looking forward to three more years with those guys getting better."
The wide receiver corps was led for the second straight year by junior J.J. Koski with 33 catches for 666 yards and four touchdowns. No other Mustang had double-digit receptions, but sophomore Quentin Harrison with six catches, three for touchdowns, likely will man the other wide receiver spot in Cal Poly's Triple Option next fall.
Drew Hernandez (664 yards, 7.6 yards per carry) and J'uan Campbell (195 yards, two scores) will head the list of returning slot backs in 2019. Also returning will be Broc Mortensen, who suffered a season-ending injury several plays after his 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Week 3 versus Brown.
Cal Poly's football program celebrated a trio of milestones this fall. The Mustangs played their 100th season on the gridiron and 25th at the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) level. In addition, Walsh completed his 10th season at the helm of the Cal Poly football program.