Gameday Preview: San Jose State at Stanford

What does Stanford need to do against San Jose State to get back to .500? The Bootleg previews Stanford's fourth game of the season, and predicts big days out of Toby Gerhart and a receiver like Doug Baldwin. Where else on the field does our analysis indicate Stanford might have an edge, and why should Stanford turn to a West Coast attack as a result? Read on...

Gameday Breakdown:
San Jose State (2-1, Predicted: 4-8) at Stanford (1-2, Predicted: 3-9)
Sat. Sept. 20, 6 p.m. PT

Last year: Stanford 37, San Jose State 0. The Cardinal played like they were still angry over San Jose State's 35-34 shocker the year before, claiming their most lopsided win of the season. The Card topped 500 total yards for the first time since 2002 and Toby Gerhart ran for 140 yards before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Stanford this year: The Card are 1-2, winning a thrilling season-opener versus Oregon State before being blown out by TCU and Arizona State. The rush game is okay, if not spectacular, by Pac-10 standards – Gerhart's fifth in Pac-10 rushing average, and the team's 131 rush yards per game is respectable (sixth in the league) – representing a major improvement over previous seasons.

Life through the air, however, has not been fun for Stanford. The 298 passing yards allowed per game is ninth in the Pac-10, and the 110 passing yards per game dead-last. The quarterbacking trio of Tavita Pritchard, Jason Forcier and Alex Loukas are clinging to the right side of 50 percent accuracy by a whisker-thin margin (35-of-69), and the one touchdown to four interceptions has many fans calling for redshirt frosh quarterback Andrew Luck.

Keys to the Game:

1. Win the ground game

It's no "Drill, baby, drill," but the motto for the Card this week is equally simple: "Toby, baby, Toby."

For to win the ground battle, the Cardinal will need to best a San Jose State team that has been downright scary rushing the ball:

- In last week's 35-10 win over San Diego State (yes, the same San Diego State that took Notre Dame to the wire the week before), the Spartans had an unbelievable 293-to-6 edge in rushing yards, giving them a whopping 40:10 of possession. Leading the way with 143 yards on 18 carries was Yonus Davis (yes, the same Yonus Davis last seen reversing field on the entire Stanford defense; Davis is a sixth-year medical redshirt now.) Quarterback Kyle Reed, a Cal transfer, added three rushing touchdowns, and with the Aztecs selling out to stop the ground game, was able to be highly efficient (20-of-25, 178 yards, 0 passing touchdowns) when the Spartans did turn to the air.

Gerhart, meanwhile, must have redemption on his mind after last year's season-ending injury. Like San Jose State, Stanford is averaging nearly as many rushing yards as its opponents. Something has to give this week, and, more likely than not, whoever wins the ground battle is going home with the W.

2. This isn't your father's San Jose State

Stanford needs to play like they understand that this isn't the same San Jose State team they'd regularly roll in the ‘70s and ‘80s, building up a 47-14-1 series record. You'd think the collapse two years ago would provide the necessary reminder, and the Card's play last year certainly seemed appropriately inspired, but San Jose State this year has shocked me with how strong they've been. If I had it all to do again, I wouldn't be picking these Spartans to go 4-8:

- In week two, the Spartans (353 total yards) outgained Nebraska (315 yards) and outrushed them, 137 yards to 99! The Spartans led 14-12 entering the fourth quarter, but Nebraska knocked out Reed (backup Miles Eden was an ineffective 1-of-7) and returned a kickoff for a touchdown to win 35-12.

- In week one, San Jose State needed a touchdown with eight seconds left to squeak past UC-Davis, 13-10. However, Eden and quarterback Jordan La Secla were both cycled through in the first half before the coaching staff settled on Reed in the halftime lockerroom. He came in and directed SJSU's two touchdown drives in a half of play, including the game-winner. He's been the No. 1 starter ever since. The Spartans did finish with only 42 rush yards, however.

- Last week, SJSU put down an absolute whooping on SDSU, both statistically and on the scoreboard, as I mention above.

- Put it all together, and the Cal transfer Reed has thrown for 497 yards on incredible 54-of-71 (76 percent) accuracy. He's throwing for well under 200 yards per game, as the Spartans are a run-first team, but they've shown they have the tools to air it out when defenses cheat on the run. (And I'd expect SJSU to pass more given the performance of Stanford's secondary thus far.)

Davis has added 227 rushing yards on 7.1 yards per carry.

Stanford is a ten-point favorite for a reason: they're faster at the skill positions and bigger on the lines. But the Card cannot take San Jose State lightly, lest the Spartans finish at Stanford the upset they started against Nebraska two weeks ago. After all, and as longtime Booties and Ted Leland alike know all too well, we are not Nebraska.

When Stanford has the ball:

In the air:

As I mention in my season preview of San Jose State, the Spartans are weakest defensively at linebacker, and relatively strong in the secondary. And just like TCU's rush-first attack played to the strengths of Stanford's D last week, here, the San Jose State defense is a pretty good matchup for Stanford's offense.

Right now, the Cardinal don't have the quarterbacking or receiving (and perhaps not even the pass protection, it hasn't really been tested) to air it out and attack an opponent's secondary deep, USC-style. Instead, any passing game we're going to see is going to feature short, high-percentage throws that will build our quarterback's confidence, test the opponents' tackling and let Stanford's receivers get one-on-one with an opponent's linebackers in space. That West-Coast style offense (appropriate for the Bill Walsh Classic) is exactly what Stanford should run against SJSU, because it puts the load squarely on the shoulders of the Spartans' linebackers, the weakest defensive link.

I think Richard Sherman has the potential for a big game here, and I'll go out on a limb and say that a second receiver breaks out with a nice, seven-catch, 80-yard game (Doug Baldwin perhaps?). We'll call it 220 passing yards for the Card, as, at least for a week, everything looks okay with the pass attack.

On the ground:

Stanford's offensive line needs to hold its own against a Spartan DL led by Adonis Davis and USC transfer Jeff Schweiger. The O line has played well, however, against strong TCU and Arizona State fronts, and looks a much more cohesive unit than 2007, so I think they can do it. That means Gerhart and Kimble will be getting to the second level with a head of steam – and, as I mentioned, watch out, San Jose State linebackers. I call for a banner day of 190 rushing yards as Gerhart picks off where he left off last year against the Spartans.

All told then, that's 410 yards of total Stanford offense, more than double the 193 Stanford managed against TCU.

When SJSU has the ball:

On the ground:

We'll start on the ground, because I think more is known about both teams there. Stanford's front-seven is not world-beating, but we thought it would be the relative strength of the defense heading into the season, and it has been just that. The 148 rush yards allowed per game will only come down as the impact of TCU's top-20 rush attack gets diluted, and even as is, that number is better than last year's and good enough to allow the Cardinal to compete for a bowl bid.

San Jose State, however, is darn good too on the ground, averaging an identical 148 rush yards per game, despite their slow start in the season opener. After what Yonus Davis did to the 2006 Card and this Spartan squad's performance on the ground the last two weeks, they are getting their 150 rush yards against the Card. The challenge for Ron Lynn's defense is to make sure it takes the Spartans 30 carries, not 15, to get there. A big key is whether Clinton Snyder and the linebackers can return to their 2007 forms, because that unit has been disappointingly quiet through three games. It's too early in the season to confirm this, but my working hypothesis is that Scott Shafer's loss and subsequent shift from an attack-first to bend-but-don't-break scheme has hurt the productivity of guys throughout the back seven.

In the air:

Here is where the game could swing wildly, because there's not much that either team could do that would shock me. It's hard to bet against Reed and a passing attack that's completing three of every four passes, but the Spartans' passing offense has been throwing short, rinky-dink throws that are open only because of the respect for its run game. If Stanford can slow that rush attack, I don't think Kevin Jurovich and David Richmond will be able to do too much. (The duo is one of the Spartans strengths, as they combined for over 2,000 receiving yards last year, best in the WAC.)

Then again, I don't think the Cardinal has the safety help to defend too many deep balls either, so if San Jose State takes a few deep shots early, who knows? Might not be a bad strategy for their offensive coordinator to try, especially given their receiving talent.

The Spartans are throwing for 218 pass yards per game thus far, and so I'll be safe and say they throw for 210 passing yards on Saturday, a lot of it on a busted play or two that Jurovich or Richmond take to the house. Even so, that gives the Spartans 360 total yards to Stanford's 410, which seems to reflect  reasonably well that this game should be dominated by offenses, especially Stanford's.

Vegas Prediction:

Stanford by 10.

My Prediction:

Stanford 34, San Jose State 24

I don't think either defense will be able to get consistent stops, but the Card's front seven should be better able to slow Yonus Davis than the Spartans' front seven will fare against Toby Gerhart. The biggest unknown, to my eyes, is how Stanford's unproven secondary will hold up against San Jose State's receiving duo of Jurovich and Richmond. If Stanford can win that battle Saturday, I don't see how they can lose.

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