Commentary: A season-opening disaster

InsideTheSpartans.com's Andrew Pang provides his commentary on the Spartans' 45-10 loss at Tulsa.

Following the San Jose State Spartans' Cure Bowl win last December, the offseason had much positive hype. With a new defensive coordinator and assistants, as well as a talented group of both returning starters and newcomers, many fans felt optimistic about the new football season. Sadly, reality mugged fans with a 45-10 loss to Tulsa on Saturday, and public attitude of the team soured in three hours.

The offensive line, returning four of five starters from Tyler Ervin’s 1,601-yard rushing senior season, allowed just 53 rushing yards. Evan Sarver, a senior who substituted at right tackle for Nate Velichko sometime around the second quarter, struggled with his blocking assignments. As a result, highly touted graduate transfer running back Deontae Cooper had a dud of a debut succeeding Ervin as the top ball carrier, running for just 48 yards on 19 carries. The defensive line showed the same problems with stopping the run as last year. Tulsa’s opening drive in the second half included multiple missed tackles by Spartan defenders, and even on completed tackles, defenders were being dragged for extra yards.

Although CBS Sports Network broadcast this mess, the preceding Texas State-Ohio game that went into triple overtime shielded some of the Spartans’ worst plays from being nationally televised live, including the defense giving up a four-play, 92-yard drive to Tulsa to start the game and Kenny Potter throwing a pick-six that extended Tulsa’s lead to 24-7. By the time CBS Sports joined the game in progress, Tulsa had a 31-7 lead. Viewers did see the Spartan defense force a three-and-out, including a sack by sophomore defensive tackle Owen Roberts, only for Tim Crawley to fumble the punt close to the end zone for an easy Tulsa touchdown that extended the score to 38-7. It was not even halftime yet!

Entering the second half, CBS Sports sideline reporter Jenny Dell quoted Caragher from a halftime interview, "You're going to have those mistakes in the first game back, but that was really ugly." Take what you will from a second-hand quote, but is that the attitude you expect from any head coach, whether in his fourth season as Caragher is or a rookie? Other game-time decisions raise questions. Knowing the uptempo style of offense Tulsa runs, Caragher did not call a single timeout in the game that would have disrupted Tulsa’s rhythm, especially in the first half when the game was still in reach. Also, why did Caragher not demand a replay review of the third-and-goal play from the Tulsa 2-yard line in the third quarter? The video replay shown on CBS Sports appeared to show Potter getting the ball into the end zone before his knee is down. Even with the outcome essentially decided, requesting a replay review would have delivered the message that Caragher stands up for his players.

In a quite telling remark, Mike Marqua, a former sportscaster with campus radio station KSJS, tweeted: “This is the worst I’ve seen #SJSU play since [Colin] Kaepernick & Nevada beat us 63-7 in 2009.” The 2009 San Jose State team finished 2-10 and had NCAA-issued scholarship and practice time reductions stemming from poor Academic Progress Rate scores from the Fitz Hill years, in contrast to Caragher’s teams that have always had full scholarships and practice time. What does it say about Caragher that he opened his fourth year, having mostly his recruits playing on the team and no NCAA sanctions and coming off a bowl victory, with a performance reminiscent of one of the darkest times in program history?

Ultimately, this game showed that the coaches failed to put their players in a position to succeed. Also, offensive team captains Potter and Crawley failed to be good examples for their teammates. (Note: The defensive team captains did not participate fully in this game; Christian Tago had a knee injury and did not travel with the team, and Maurice McKnight was suspended for the first half for a targeting penalty in the previous game.) There is now serious doubt that San Jose State can beat FCS opponent Portland State this Saturday. Not even the 3-9 season in 2014 led to much doubt that San Jose State could beat an FCS top-10 New Hampshire team to open 2015. (San Jose State ended up winning 43-13.) Besides being ranked #16 in this week’s STATS poll, Portland State beat two FBS teams last year, a 9-4 Washington State and 1-11 North Texas. In fact, Portland State beat North Texas 66-7, and North Texas fired coach Dan McCarney immediately afterwards.

Should San Jose State barely escape with a win or even lose to Portland State, do not expect a happy season ahead. As I commented this summer, athletic director Gene Bleymaier has put other coaches on notice with the firing of baseball coach Dave Nakama after four lackluster seasons. Because a lame duck 2017 does no favors for recruiting, 2016 is a make-or-break year for Caragher. If the team makes another bowl game this year, this game will be a forgotten aberration. For now, it is tough to foresee a good season, unless Caragher and his assistants demand better results from their players.

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