First, about those numbers. Utah was ranked at No. 17 nationally coming into Spartan Stadium. Though perhaps not as strong this year as last, the Utes were a quality opponent. Against that quality opponent, SJSU made a total of 18 first downs. Some, admittedly, were on penalties, including key pass interference calls.
Despite the Utes charity, making that many first downs is an indication the Spartans are improving offensively, at least passing. This is especially evident compared to their 2008 performances.
In 2008, SJSU equaled or exceeded that total just four times. One of those was at Nebraska, on September 6th, when the Spartans made 19 first downs. The other three were 22 against San Diego State at home on September 13th; 18 against Utah State at Spartan Stadium on October 11th; and 20 at Idaho on November 1st.
SJSU gained 242 yards passing against Utah. Although the Spartans passed for 301 yards in a losing effort at Nevada on November 15th last year, the only other 2008 games in which the team exceeded that number were October 11th against Utah State (314), and 295 yards at Idaho. Even against San Diego State, arguably the Spartans easiest win last season, SJSU passed for a total of only 183 yards.
Other passing totals in 2008 were 216 at Nebraska; 165 at Stanford; 152 at Hawai'i; just 98 at Boise State on October 24th; a mere 50 in the win at New Mexico State on October 18th; and 118 at Louisiana Tech on November 8th.
Again, the only quality team SJSU was able to pass against in 2008 was Nevada, and Nevada may not be as strong outside the WAC as they are in it.
Here is another notable number: 7.3. That is how many yards the Spartans averaged per passing attempt Saturday against the Utes. SJSU equaled that average per pass against Nevada in 2008, and exceeded it with 9.5 yards per pass attempt at Idaho. Their average yards per pass was lower in every other game, with some results as dismal as the 2.8 yards per attempt at New Mexico State, or 3.2 yards per attempt at Boise State.
The passing performance against Utah was a significant improvement for SJSU (like you didnt know that), but the numbers show just how significant it really was. One game doesnt establish a trend, however, so SJSU will have to do well in the air against Stanford this Saturday before most fans are convinced that the passing game is coming around.
There are three significant changes on the team in 2009 to which the improvement if it holds can be attributed. The first is the arrival of Assistant Head Coach Terry Malley, perhaps more for his ability to help in the development of Jordan La Secla than for his play calling. The second is, of course, the possible emergence of Jordan La Secla as a potential leader and quarterback who can move the offense despite the lack of a rushing game. The third is the improvement of the offensive line in providing its quarterback with enough time to find his open receiver and get the ball delivered.
That is why the pass interference calls against Utah were key stats. Committing the foul to prevent a pass completion is an indication that Utah could not cover the SJSU receivers. Saturdays game at Stanford will be an opportunity for SJSU to demonstrate whether this was the result of weaknesses in Utahs secondary, or new-found strength in their passing game.
Another significant number continues to be troubling: third-down conversions. SJSU converted on just three third downs in 12 chances against Utah. (By comparison, Utah converted eight of 15, and many were big gainers that hurt SJSU.)
The totals for 2008 are similar. Only against San Diego State (7 17), Idaho (6 15), and Utah State (6 18) did SJSU even come close to converting at least half of their third-downs into firsts. The Spartans must improve its third-down conversion rate if it is to end any season with more wins than losses.
Any semblance of a running game would help to improve those third-down conversion rates, as well as keep the passing game effective. The Spartans may or may not be able to do that against a concededly superior Stanford team this Saturday. But look beyond Saturdays game at Stanford: other than Boise State, it is hard to say whether the other WAC teams have significantly improved from 2008.
Nevada was embarrassed in their opener at Notre Dame; Fresno rolled over Davis, then lost a heartbreaker at Wisconsin; Hawai'i won at home against Central Arkansas, and on the road at Washington State (2 11 in 2008); and La Tech lost against quality opponents Auburn in Week 1, and at Navy in Week 2.
Saturdays game against Stanford is important. A win would help SJSU get bowl-eligible in 2009, and for many Spartan fans, just beating Stanford is enough to call a season successful. But Saturdays game will test La Secla, who will start. If he does well, one may assume he will continue to start in 2009, and most likely into 2010 as well. Identifying a consistent quarterback would be one more piece found in SJSUs puzzle.
Even if SJSU does not pull the upset, Spartan fans should be looking forward to the WAC season. The best measure of SJSUs improvement in 2009 will depend on how many wins the Spartans can achieve against their conference foes. The Spartan defense has demonstrated it will keep SJSU in most games into the fourth quarter. A more potent passing attack led by an emerging quarterback may be enough to keep the Spartans playing beyond December 5th.
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R. P. Cotta, Jr., is an Associate Editor for Inside Sparta. You may contact R.P with any questions, comments, or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org
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