Rebounding from two disappointing losses, the San Jose State Spartans hosted in-state rival Fresno State Bulldogs on Saturday night and won handily, 49-23. After the final whistle, the Spartans hoisted the Valley Trophy and will keep the silver “V” in San Jose for the next 12 months, at least. Save for two mistakes, San Jose State played quality football for four quarters, something that is key to bouncing back from last season’s 3-9 record.
Now with a 2-2 record, this year’s team relieves much future pressure and declined morale for the team. Otherwise, with heavily-favored Auburn scheduled for this Saturday, San Jose State would face the prospect of a 1-4 start, a start not seen at all in the Caragher eras. (The 2013 and 2014 teams were able to bounce back from 1-3 starts.) The last time San Jose State began a season 1-3 was 2014, which ended with a 3-9 record. The last 1-4 start was in Mike MacIntyre’s first season in 2010 and foreshadowed a 1-12 finish. In contrast, the last 2-2 start was in 2008, a 6-6 season. Other seasons with 2-2 starts include 2000 (7-5) and 2002 (6-7).
Fresno State presented their Bay Area rivals with plenty of low-hanging fruit. Mere hours before kickoff, third-stringer Ford Childress was designated the starting quarterback. This was because first-stringer Chason Virgil had a season-ending injury and Zack Greenlee, the next quarterback in the depth chart, was suspended for underage drinking. The Spartans made a sweet smoothie with that fruit. The secondary only allowed Childress 5.0 yards per passing attempt and got one interception. The defensive line sacked Childress twice.
Childress did complete two touchdown passes. The only other points that Fresno State could produce were from a rushing touchdown and a field goal. The Spartan defensive line only allowed 3.0 yards per rush attempt, for the best run defensive result this season for a team desperately needing such.
Ultimately, offense would be the best defense for San Jose State, as the team took a 14-0 lead after the first quarter. After Fresno State scored a touchdown in the second quarter, San Jose State scored on the next drive to take a 21-7 lead with nearly 4 minutes to go until halftime and held Fresno State to a field goal on the next defensive turn. On the other side of halftime, San Jose State stretched their lead to 28-10 with a scoring drive where all but one play was on the ground.
Fresno State would not quit while down by three possessions. Following one touchdown drive, the Bulldogs forced a three-and-out and were immediately gifted red zone possession because Spartan punter Michael Carrizosa mishandled a snap. In a trick play on 2nd & goal that nearly went wrong, Bulldog running back Jamire Jordan escaped three Spartan defenders in the backfield and scampered into the end zone. This quickly turned the score 28-23 (the extra point was blocked), and San Jose State combined two defensive stops with two more touchdowns to go up 42-23. Cornerback Jimmy Pruitt got a late pick-six that would determine the final margin.
Spartan starting quarterback Joe Gray shed the flaws that cost the Spartans winnable home games last season. On Saturday, Gray completed nearly 87% of his passes, averaged around 11 yards per pass attempt, and passed for three touchdowns. With this performance, Gray earned a career-high passer rating. These are David Fales type of numbers that Gray never reached in 2014, his first season as a starter. Save for the two interceptions thrown in the road games at Air Force and Oregon State, Gray has eliminated many mental mistakes that led to turnovers and stalled the offense in the 2014 losses to Colorado State and Hawaii. With regularly planned starter Kenny Potter sitting out for injury and without a clear timetable for return, Gray has shown that he stepped up for the team and wants to end his Spartan career on a high note.
The Spartans have put themselves in a position to enter homecoming week with a 3-3 record, given that a road game at UNLV follows this Saturday’s “money game” at Auburn, for which SJSU will receive a $1.5 million payout. However, it is up to the coaches and players to maintain this level of competitiveness throughout the season, beyond the big rivalry game from last week. Additionally, special teams showed many flaws to be fixed, including the dropped punt, a missed 47-yard field goal, and giving up large kickoff returns. Still, the evidence shows this is not the same team that quit in the second half of last season.