Saturday preview: San Jose State goes for bowl eligibility against Aztecs

As far as rivalries are concerned, San Diego State is probably the closest San Jose State has to a fair fight annually now.san_jose_state

For years, it was Fresno State. They are the closest school to San Jose on the same level that doesn’t see the Spartans as a purchased win. The problem is that the Bulldogs have dominated the series since 1988, with the beatings getting worse once the Carr family got involved. And, given other criteria like fan support, digs, funds, and annual expectations, the gulf is even wider.

San Diego State makes for a much more even matchup. Both San Jose and San Diego are large urban schools that are key destination universities in the Cal State system and play third or fourth banana in their own primary recruiting grounds (San Jose to Stanford and Cal, San Diego to UCLA and USC.)

One is crap with its finances, the other has a drug problem. They really are perfect for one another.

But recent performance is where this has the potential to become a rivalry, especially with this game meaning so much to both teams.

Near-must-win games

San Jose State, at 4-1 in conference play, still technically has an outside shot at the Mountain West title game. They just need to win out in conference, although that entails knocking off a likely undefeated Fresno State team hungry for a BCS berth the day after Thanksgiving, but hey, we can all dream big, can’t we?

The Spartans are the type of program that needs to be 7-5 to have a postseason. There aren’t a ton of Spartans’ fans who are brimming with school pride to turn out to watch them in person and San Jose State isn’t more attractive watching to lay fans than, say, Matlock reruns.

After San Diego State is a down-on-its-luck Nevada team that should be easy pickings, a rough and tumble Navy program and the Bulldogs. Losing to San Diego at home on Saturday means the Spartans’ slim Western division title hopes are done, and they would need a win and possibly a second out of a schedule giving them no favors.

San Diego State is in just as unenviable position when it comes to bowl eligibility. They have to win twice just to get to six wins out of San Jose State, Hawaii, Boise State and UNLV. The Aztecs have made it a nasty habit of playing down to their weaker opponents, and that’s allowed some of them to surprise and win. They can ill afford that now; a win over San Jose State would ease some of the pain and make the bowl chase much easier.

This is where losing three of the first four, no matter who it was against and for which team, hurts.

Weapons everywhere

Part of San Diego State’s early problem involved how unsettled they were at quarterback to open the season. Adam Dingwell threw four interceptions and completed less than 50 percent of his passes against FCS Eastern Illinois, perhaps the most embarrassing of the seven early-season losses by bowl subdivision teams to championship subdivision teams.

Walk-on Quinn Kaehler took over early in the Ohio State game after Dingwell threw another interception and was 0 for 5 passing to that point. The Aztecs have never looked back, and at least on offense have gotten healthy.  They have two talented running backs in junior Adam Muema and freshman Donnel Pumphrey, with the former finding his stride last week with a big game against New Mexico after not being entirely healthy through the first few games with an ankle injury.

Kaehler has brought stability to the position, throwing for 11 touchdowns this season, with junior Ezell Ruffin and senior Colin Lockett being his primary targets. The junior from San Ramon is the type of quarterback that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, and seems to do his best work when the running game is supplementing the passing game. He hasn’t demonstrated yet an ability to really take over games.

Often competence is all that matters, and that’s all the Aztecs ask of Kaehler after the hole they started the season in at that position. But it also means this isn’t an explosive offense. They can move it, but have demonstrated little ability to move the ball for a big score against good teams. And when they do, they’ve been undone by kickers that just aren’t that good.

Trouble keeping teams grounded

Endemic of the whole conference this year, San Diego State has problems on defense. What makes them odd is that it isn’t against the run, like everyone else. The Aztecs are allowing just 140 yards a game to opponents with some run heavy teams on the schedule. Not bad at all.

The problem is that they are not much against the pass. They have just two interceptions, tied with four other teams for second worst in the FBS, and with just 12 sacks and allow an average of 268.6 yards and 32.6 points, which puts them in the bottom 25 teams in the nation in all three categories.

These numbers are a little skewed because San Diego State has faced several teams that throw the ball a lot and don’t really run it. But that also just brings the lack of sacks and the low interception total into stark relief.

Still not that good without the ball

Last week not withstanding, the Spartans’ defense has problems with the run (191.4 yards allowed/game), aren’t exceptionally strong against the pass (245.6 yards/game and 2 TDs per game) and allow more points on average per game (29.9) than they score (28.6), although much of that damage was done early in the season.

San Jose State’s defense is better than their opponents today, and it is capable of a big game like the one it had last week against UNLV. But that doesn’t mean it won’t get torched from time to time.

The Spartans will have their hands full in this one. Muema has to be a target; taking away the running game will, with any luck, allow San Jose State to throw off the passing game and buy the offense some time to build a lead.

Operation: Bullseye

Given David Fales struggles last week at Las Vegas (he completed just 15 of 30 passes), this is the type of team he needs on the schedule to get back on track. But look for the Spartans to also keep pounding it with their freshmen trio of running backs — Jarred Lawson, Tim Crawley and Thomas Tucker — with the Aztecs expecting Fales to be his usual all-conference self under center.

Key player to watch for San Jose will be Fales, who after being thrown off his game last week was problematic for San Jose State. The running game is still largely composed of young runners (Jason Simpson isn’t factoring into the rotation any more.) For all of his talk so far about balance on offense, Rob Caragher still has a pass-first program on offense that isn’t built to grind out games most of the time.

He is, in general, still being asked to put this team on his back in several games. Often he’s been up to the task:

Passing
Rk Date School Opponent Cmp Att Pct Yds TD Int Rate
1 2013-08-29 San Jose State Sacramento State 16 32 50.0 225 2 0 129.7
2 2013-09-07 San Jose State Stanford 29 43 67.4 216 1 1 112.7
3 2013-09-21 San Jose State Minnesota 22 35 62.9 439 3 2 185.1
4 2013-09-27 San Jose State Utah State 25 48 52.1 314 0 2 98.7
5 2013-10-05 San Jose State Hawaii 16 35 45.7 318 3 2 138.9
6 2013-10-12 San Jose State Colorado State 28 35 80.0 431 3 1 206.0
7 2013-10-26 San Jose State Wyoming 27 37 73.0 482 5 0 227.0
8 2013-11-02 San Jose State Nevada-Las Vegas 15 30 50.0 150 1 2 89.7
8 Games 178 295 60.3 2575 18 10 147.0

The offense is at its best when David Fales is hitting his targets, and when he has a clean pocket. The Aztecs have allowed Derek Carr and Sean Mannion to have good games against them, and let Nevada’s Cody Fajardo post a big game against them in a shootout. There is no reason to expect the Aztecs to do anything the senior quarterback hasn’t seen before, and probably done better as well.

The verdict

San Jose State was pegged by the sports books as a 6.5 point favorite in an absolute shootout. Normally, I would be hard pressed to disagree on the shootout part since neither team’s defense has done much to distinguish themselves.

But the UNLV game changed that. No, the Rebels are not a great team, but it was the way the Spartans slowed them. They took away the big weapon — running back Tim Corbett — and made relatively untested quarterback Caleb Herring beat them, which he didn’t.

But on offense, the Spartans can’t put this one away without Fales. They need their star to shine, to take advantage of a defense that has not demonstrated a real ability to stop good quarterbacks from finding their targets, all while keeping in mind that San Jose State suddenly has a running game.

The task of winning this game is daunting for both teams. It’s much more so, though, for the Aztecs.

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