Saturday Preview: Spartans look to earn bowl eligibility against lowly Nevada

san_jose_stateNevada dominated its series with San Jose State for years, winning nine of the last 10 meetings. The Spartans only win was at home in 2007, and didn’t hurt the Wolf Pack’s bowl chances.

How the tables have been turned. This year, it’s the Spartans with something to lose against a struggling Nevada team. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Nevada has lost five straight and has just three wins in Brian Polian’s first year as coach of the Wolf Pack, and those wins against a mediocre FCS UC Davis team and two teams in the doldrums of the Mountain West (over winless Hawaii and a close call with two-win Air Force.)

This year’s struggles prove that no one other than Chris Ault can lead them to a bowl game. Only once in the last 23 years has anyone other than the legend Ault led the Wolf Pack to a bowl game, and that was Jeff Tisdel in 1996 with a team Ault assembled.

San Jose State is seeking to make a second straight bowl game for the first time since Claude Gilbert led the Spartans to back-to-back California Bowls in 1986 and 1987.

Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s game at Mackay Stadium in Reno at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

  • Get mad, then get bowl eligible: It’s easy to think there’s little to play for after last week’s deflating loss to San Diego State at home. But the Spartans still have three games to play, including Saturday’s game at Nevada. But San Jose State hasn’t reached bowl eligibility, and this is the easiest game of the three to reach that threshold. Take care of business now by beating the Wolf Pack and earning a spot in a bowl rather than hoping to do it against a strong Navy squad or a Fresno State team angling for a BCS spot. The Reno Gazette-Journal’s Chris Murray briefly raises the question of motivation after the Spartans’ last game, which is kind of ridiculous. There’s plenty for San Jose State to play for and to even suggest that there isn’t is idiotic.
  • Stop Fale-ing in the passing game: Any time David Fales is passing at a 1-to-1 interception to touchdown ratio, the Spartans are in trouble. He is just 42 for 78 in the last two games for 451 yards and as many TDs (4) as interceptions (4) over two games. He had more passing yards and passing TDs in the game against Wyoming than he has in the last two games. The running game lifted the Spartans against UNLV, but couldn’t last week with the senior off target much of the time. This is David Fales second chance at redemption against a former team (he was on Nevada’s roster and a freshman and was recruited by Wyoming), and he needs to make the most of it.
  • Let the bowling balls roll down hill: When the Spartans faced UNLV, they were facing one of the worst run defenses in the nation, and they racked up 312 rushing yards. In Nevada, the Spartans are facing the worst, allowing on average 265 yards per game, at the bottom of the bowl subdivision. The freshman trio of Jarred Lawson, Tim Crawley and Thomas Tucker should be able to get going against this weak Nevada front seven. In general, the reason why Nevada’s 3-7 and possessing wins only over two bad bowl conference teams and a mediocre championship subdivision team is their defense. For more on this game, check out this breakdown from the Reno Gazette-Journal.
  • Hobbled weapon: Senior quarterback Cody Fajardo has been an efficient passer and the Wolf Pack’s second leading rusher. That would be trouble for the Spartans if he was 100 percent. He enters Saturday’s game listed as questionable, but was in full pads at practice Wednesday after missing the previous two days with a sprained foot. He was hurt in the closing minutes of the Colorado State game. If he can’t go or can’t stay in the game, Tyler Stewart or Devin Combs will play; neither one is as good as Fajardo. Nevada has already been hurting on offense the last few weeks; the last thing they need is to be down their star weapon.
  • Playing like the favorite: San Jose State, like last week, is a touchdown favorite against Nevada with a high over/under (65.5) this week. The Spartans have been a mediocre first half team, falling behind to Wyoming and Colorado State early before coming back. The last two weaks, San Jose State jumped out early only to watch UNLV mount a comeback that fell short and San Diego State overtake them in the end. This is a clearly inferior team, and the Spartans defense and offense need to approach the Wolf Pack as though they are the better defensive and offensive team. The old coach’s cliche is that a team has to play a full 60 minutes; the last two weeks, the Spartans haven’t. They are fortunate to be 1-1 after these last two weeks, and now they have almost no margin for error.
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