Since the turn of the century, football in college ranks has seen a dramatic increase in the use of spread offenses built on passing the ball to fast wide receivers from strong-armed quarterbacks. This philosophy replaced the tradition of getting production by running the ball. The use of this offense peaked in 2006 as college football teams rushed for the fewest yards per game on average since 1939, and has continued to be popular ever since.

Cal Poly, however, has bucked that trend.

The Mustangs are one of 125 schools to play in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) section of college football. Of those 125, Cal Poly Football has been the gold standard for rushing offense since Tim Walsh was hired as head coach in 2009.

As a team, the Mustangs have averaged more than 250 yards rushing per game since 2011, ranking at least sixth in that category nationally. From 2013 to 2015, the Mustangs were the best team in the FCS at running the ball, averaging 309.1, 351.8 and 387.3 yards on the ground per game.

The secret to the Mustangs’ production is relatively simple: the option offense.

Successful option offenses typically feature two main components: an athletic quarterback that is a threat to both run and throw the ball and running backs that have the vision and patience for blocks to develop.

When the offense lines up in an option formation, the quarterback will have one to three running backs behind him. He has the “option” to give any one of those running backs the ball or keep it to run himself. This inherently keeps the opposing defense guessing who will get the ball and makes it easier for the offense to find mismatches to capitalize on them.

And capitalizing on mismatches is what the Mustangs do best.

Last weekend, the Mustangs’ offense played a Portland State defense that had struggled to stop the running game and allowed 230 yards per game. With the efforts of junior slotback Kyle Lewis, senior slotback Kori Garcia and junior fullback Joe Protheroe leading the way, the Mustangs totaled 462 yards rushing in the victory.

Protheroe has been an unusual asset for the Mustangs this season. The fullback is third in FCS in rushing yards per game out of more than 200 players. In past years, Walsh’s offense has typically used two to three running backs in rotation rather than one dominant one, but Protheroe’s skill in the offense puts him above the rest.

An unexpected side effect of using a primarily run-oriented offense this season has been the improved play of senior quarterback Dano Graves.

After redshirting last year in order to play this season following the graduation of Chris Brown, Graves has had the best year of his career. Though he hasn’t thrown enough passes this season to qualify, his 217.0 passer rating leads the conference and would be top in the nation if he qualified. He’s posting career highs in completion percentage, yards per game, yards per pass and touchdowns.

His ability to find open receivers in the passing game makes him the perfect quarterback component to Walsh’s option system. In different game situations, Graves can fake a handoff of the football to any of the running backs to catch defenses off guard and find his receivers open downfield.

With the offense producing at such a high rate, the Mustangs’ defense has less pressure on it to perform and instead can play to keep the lead. The Cal Poly defense has played well enough to get the team to 4-2, 2-1 in the Big Sky conference and ranked 18th in the FCS.

The rest of the season includes games against Big Sky perennial power Eastern Washington (5-1, 3-0), Weber State (4-2, 3-0) and the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe against UC Davis this Saturday. Wins in at least two of those three games behind a strong rushing attack would set up the Mustangs to stampede their way into the FCS tournament for a shot at the national championship.

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