Sunday Morning Quarterback: San Jose State wilts when it matters

San Jose State entered Saturday’s game confident and just one win away from bowl eligibility. They leave it with a lot of questions left unanswered … and still just one win away from bowl eligibility after San Diego State overcame a rough first half to stun the Spartans late, 34-30.san_jose_state

This is the hardest loss for San Jose State in a number of years, a game that mattered out of so many that usually don’t, and one they should have had out of so many they are counted out of before even taking the field.

When your special teams blocks two PATs and a field goal, you aren’t supposed to lose.

When you’re leading by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, you’re not supposed to lose.

But they did, and it’s made life much more complicated for the Spartans going forward. Bowl eligibility now rests on next week’s game against a weak but formidable Nevada game before two tough games to close the season, and like that, there goes any hope of wresting the Mountain West western division from Fresno State. With the Bulldogs beating the snot out of Wyoming Friday night, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that they will claim the division’s top spot and get a rematch with Boise State.

The expectation that the Fresno State game would mean more than just being the conference and season game was low indeed, but this is a hard way to see  that possibility evaporate.

Observations from Saturday night

David Fales wasn’t on target again tonight: And this is what killed San Jose State, because the running game was toast thanks to some good defensive line play by the Aztecs. his numbers don’t look that bad: 27 for 48 passing with three TDs and 301 yards. But considering that he easily could have a better night. As has been the case when he’s off this season, he was airmailing many receivers on 10-15 yard routes in open coverage, a cardinal sin for any quarterback.

Since his career day against Wyoming two weeks ago, he’s struggled. He is just 42 for 78 in that time for 451 yards and as many TDs (4) as interceptions (4) over two games. Those kind of numbers are uncharacteristic of the Fales we all saw as a junior.

For some of the bluster about playcalling at times, this was not on coach Ron Caragher or his offensive coordinator, Jimmy Daugherty, although Fales’ slight but sudden regression this season can be pinned on Daugherty as quarterbacks coach, and should leave people with questions about Blake Jurich’s and Joe Gray’s development for future seasons.

San Diego State shut down the run: The Aztecs defense has been pretty good against the run all year. And despite Jarred Lawson having an OK game by getting 76 yards on 17 carries, the rest of the San Jose State running corps was restricted to scraps at best, and by the fourth quarter the Spartans had abandoned the run almost entirely, mostly because it was getting them nowhere.

It caused a chain reaction: The Spartans couldn’t run the ball, leaving them to pass for first downs. Incomplete passes abounded from an off-target Fales, which stopped the clock and eventually forced San Jose State to punt. San Diego State takes ball and pounds away at a defense that spent far too much time on the field in fourth quarter.

Lather, rinse, repeat until victory.

The defense collapsed in the fourth quarter: But really, what would you expect after almost an entire half of the offense not being able to do anything. Bob Toledo and his defensive coaches made the necessary changes. The pass coverage on San Diego State’s fourth and 7 play was pillow soft, and it allowed Quinn Kaehler to beat them by finding Colin Lockett on the sideline for an easy first down.

After a decent first half in which they grabbed two turnovers and kept San Diego State from getting into a passing groove, they seemed to sit back on their laurels in the fourth quarter especially. And the Aztecs made them pay.

The offense needed to make a play at some point to bury the Aztecs, and it never did.

San Diego State’s kicking game is a mess. They have missed seven straight field goals dating back to September, and had two extra points blocked Saturday. Neither Seamus McMorrow nor Wes Feer were capable of doing the basics, although McMorrow finally settled down late and got a few key extra points. San Diego State is stuck the rest of the way with these two, but next year expect to see a new kicker for the Aztecs.

The biggest plays of the game were on special teams. Surprisingly, it was what happened to the Spartans on special teams that killed them in the end. The blocked field goal at the start of the fourth quarter pushed everything the Aztecs’ direction by giving them a short field and a quick score to reduce the lead to one score. They turned it into a touchdown one play later, and took the wind out of the Spartans’ sails. Instead of being up 14 in the last quarter, San Diego State suddenly pulled to within three, a big swing in points and momentum.

Harrison Waid’s mediocre punt of just 25 yards after a three-and-out by the Spartans offense really hurt. It again gave San Diego State a short field to work with, and put the defense back out there after just a 1:30 on the sideline. The offense’s inability to kill the clock on that drive, to just get a first down, and then Waid’s poor punt put San Diego State in prime position to win the game.

San Jose State’s strong play early, blocking two PATs and a field goal, helped them get up early. Poor play on a field goal and a bad punt did them in late.

So what now?

The Spartans fall to 5-4 on the season, and 3-2 in conference play. The two losses plunges them back into fifth place overall in conference, ahead of Colorado State (whom they control the head-to-head.) It makes the New Mexico Bowl look likely if they can get to bowl eligibility.

Fresno State is the likely West division champion, pending their game against New Mexico later this month (If the Bulldogs were to lose to the Lobos for some reason, hilarity would ensue …) They will also likely host the Mountain West title game in a rematch with Boise State, the likely winner of the Mountain division at this point.

The task now is to beat Nevada, not a good team this year at 3-7, 2-5 in Mountain West play, but certainly not a pushover. Bowl eligibility has to be in the forefront of everyone’s mind going forward.

The Fresno State people keep talking about going 1-0 each week rather than looking forward to opponents and the like. As cliche as it is, it’s a good way for San Jose State to look at this situation: Go 1-0 against the Wolf Pack.

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