Joe Protheroe

Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe, right, leads the FCS in rushing through three games with 467 yards in the Mustangs' triple option offense.

Cal Poly athletics

The fullback is the dinosaur of modern football, especially at the college level.

The bruising and blocking back once roamed the backfields of many offenses, but has since disappeared. Though not extinct, it certainly is an endangered species with the dawn of the spread offense.

But not at Cal Poly, No. 6 Montana's opponent this week.

Nowhere on the Mustangs' roster are the words "running back," the title instead replaced by a series of more specific descriptors. Slot back, wing back and, yes, fullback.

In San Luis Obispo, California, the fullback is alive and well. Cal Poly's junior heavy back Joe Protheroe, a 6-foot 225-pound force at the line of scrimmage and beyond, is leading the FCS in rushing through three weeks. At 155.7 yards per game, a whopping 467 for the season, Protheroe is breaking out and putting the fullback back in the spotlight.

But don't tell Protheroe that. He's happy being anonymous.

"It feels good, but the center piece? I would say the center piece of our offense is really the O-line," the 22-year-old from Concord, California said, deflecting praise. "I don't want to take no credit for the hard work they put in in the trenches. They make me look like the one who shines, but I appreciate them 100 percent."

Fair enough, but both are integral cogs in Cal Poly's machine-like triple option offense, which is again leading the nation in rushing (392.3 ypg) for a fourth straight season. After playing a supporting role in 2015 -- Protheroe ranked third on the team with 779 rushing yards -- the fullback has taken center stage.

He has three 100-yard performances this fall and at least one touchdown in each game, five in all. That's meant a heavy workload for the ball carrier, already rushing 76 times at a clip of 6.1 yards per tote.

He rushed the ball a career-high 31 times in last week's win over then-ninth-ranked South Dakota State, finishing with 217 yards on the ground.

"The week before I had 18 carries; I could just tell the difference. That 10 or 12 extra carries, oh you can feel the difference," Protheroe said of the bruises incurred from extra hits. "... For sure, for sure, but once I get in that ice bath I feel good."

***

It will be the Montana defenders' main goal Saturday to make Protheroe feel bad, dolling out as much punishment on the fullback -- or whomever carries the ball on any give play -- as possible.

The teams square off in San Luis Obispo for the start of Big Sky Conference play, a game that kicks off at 1 p.m. (MDT) and can be viewed on ROOT Sports.

For linebackers, facing the triple option and a steady diet of run plays is an ideal Saturday, said Griz junior Connor Strahm.

"Oh no, this is awesome," he said when asked about the option. "They have a good fullback running up the middle 40 times a game. Hitting him 40 times a game? It's gonna be fun."

But the Mustangs are feeling as confident as ever in their passing attack, a little used yet effective complement to the frequent rushes. Fifth-year senior quarterback Dano Graves, who started as a sophomore against Montana back in 2013, has given the 'Stangs a fourth option: throwing the ball.

He's 19 of 31 for 353 yards and three touchdowns this fall. Graves has yet to throw an interception.

"Our execution was as good as it's been since I've been here last week," eighth-year head coach Tim Walsh said of the team's 38-31 win at SDSU. "The consistency thing is what we're really looking for."

Quarterback Chris Brown led Cal Poly in rushing last year with 1,000-plus yards and Graves picked up where he left off in that regard, too. He has rumbled for another 287 yards with wing back Kori Garcia close behind at 212.

So just when you're expecting the run (for the sixth, seventh or eighth straight play), Cal Poly will go over the top with a pass. That's why the Mustangs are so dangerous, said Griz head coach Bob Stitt.

"I wouldn't say balanced because it was almost 500 yards of rushing (last week), but for a triple option team to throw it like they did -- that's the difference for them from last year," said Stitt, whose team fell to Cal Poly 20-19 at home in 2015.

"With this new quarterback they can throw the ball. If they're off schedule on third down, they can still convert a third down."

Though more often than not Cal Poly will prescribe a heavy does of Protheroe, letting the fullback run wild in his natural habitat.

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