San Jose State hasn’t been perfect this season, that’s for sure - but opportunities to have an exceptional season have presented themselves. The Spartans arguably played a better 60 minutes at Auburn than the Tigers and looked like the better team for parts of games at Air Force and Oregon State until crucial mistakes let the games quickly slip away.
A 6-0 record would have been a stretch to say the least, but one thing the Spartans had not seen all season was an opponent who thoroughly dominated them in a fashion that occurred on Saturday versus San Diego State - at home to boot - which left alumni, students and fans in attendance for homecoming heading to Spartan Stadium’s exits early, scratching their heads.
A 30-7 loss wasn’t the script that was written prior to the game. The Spartans were favored in a matchup that would put the winner the driver’s seat to play in the Mountain West Championship game.
Having watched San Diego State in person two weeks prior, I certainly wasn’t overly impressed by the Aztecs nor expected Saturday’s game to go as it did. In that matchup, SDSU held an inept Fresno State offense to 89 yards and 7 points, but still only won by a final score of 21-7.
It wasn’t just my analysis, San Diego State’s own head coach Rocky Long was quoted afterward as saying, “It was two teams battling out. Neither one of us are very good, but it was a great game.”
A 14-point win over a 2-4 Hawaii squad the following week was not a significant sign of improvement either.
I have covered collegiate football as a member of the media for six years, but Saturday was my first opportunity to watch from the sidelines. It’s not as advantageous from an X’s and O’s standpoint compared to the press box, but the key to the game was as evident I had ever seen. Both San Diego State’s offensive and defensive lines seemed to have a significant push on each down and the proximity to the action emphasized the fact with each thud and crash of the pads.
While Donnel Pumphrey and Chase Price were meeting contact three yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Tyler Ervin was met by a defender before he could cross the LOS virtually every time.
San Diego State’s starting offensive line boasts five three-star recruits this season who are pushing Mountain West front-sevens aside and once again making two, two-star running backs look like superstars. The Aztecs flexed their recruiting strengths against an SJSU program who has had more success at recruiting the skills positions.
On Saturday, San Jose State’s defense did a good job bending, but not breaking for a full 60 minutes. Defending 48 rushing attempts and not allowing a carry of more than 20 yards is quite impressive, but the initial push between the tackles allowed the Aztecs to pick up 4.9 yards per attempt.
“They are very big, one of the biggest lines that we’ve faced all year,” San Jose State Head Coach Ron Caragher said after the game. “They’re physical and they do a good job in the power run game. You don’t see that week in and week out because so many people are running spread offenses.”
Likewise on defense, even in the Aztecs’ 3-3-5 defense, they were able to push the Spartans’ O-Line backwards and use exotic blitzes to finish off plays in the backfield. Rocky Long’s staff has been excellent in game planning on Saturdays and their scheme can be tough for opposing quarterbacks, especially for one like Potter who had only logged one full start going into the game.
“They did a good job putting pressure in our backfield, getting guys back there and penetrating through us,” Caragher said. “Coming off the edge, they found our short edge. It created some confusion for some of our options. We’re, in a way, an option team in pulling it and throwing the football. All of their slanting and angling - we do our best to simulate it in practice with the scout team, and it’s just tough to simulate it at game speed… I run the scout team during practice and I need to do a better job simulating.”
Still, 148 yards of total offense is not acceptable by any measure and a multiple offense should be able to find something, anything, that is effective over 60 minutes.
There is an argument that Gray should have remained the starter over the last two weeks, but even the Mountain West’s best quarterbacks have historically struggled against Long’s scheme in recent years. With Gray’s tendency to gamble when under pressure, I’m not certain it would have been any better.
“I still believe in Kenny, and Kenny’s our quarterback, and he’s a good player,” Caragher said. “Whoever you put back there tonight, San Diego State did a good job putting pressure on that position.
After the game, head coach Ron Caragher and three leaders on the team all shared the same sentiment. Saturday was no letdown, the team came ready to play and brought energy, they just could not get the necessary push on the line to get anything going and a defensive scheme led to two interceptions by Potter to prevent any chance of overcoming their deficiencies.
Comments like these are often thought of as lip service by the fans, but they were certainly accurate with my observations from patrolling the sidelines
Caragher and the three players were a little stunned by the result, but not discouraged - which is key to making something successful out of the 2015 season. Now rather than looking ahead to a spot in the title game, the Spartans will be fighting for their bowl eligibility against New Mexico. The Lobos aren’t an overly threatening team on paper, but an option offense which instantly makes them a threat for SJSU. With tough matchups looming against BYU and Boise State next month, the Spartans can’t afford to drop this one.
Meanwhile, San Diego State lost ugly to Cal and Penn State, and even lost to South Alabama at home - but on a night when it appeared San Jose State was poised to take a lead for the MW West, the Aztecs claimed a commanding lead at the top of the division. Even in what seemed to be a down year, the Aztecs’ dominant line and confusing defense shows no signs of letting up to the Spartans or the rest of the division for years to come.
In comparison to the rest of the Mountain West, San Jose State has an impressive staff of assistant coaches and success in recruiting suggests that the Spartans have a bright future - but with a 12-19 record over Caragher's two and a half years, they need to start cashing in on victories and catching up to the San Diego State’s of the MW sooner rather than later.