Sunday Morning Quarterback: Spartans left in the dust by Nevada’s offense

Anyone watching Saturday night’s mauling in Reno could have legitimately asked which teams was nearly bowl eligible and which one wasn’t. And, if they didn’t know anything about the two teams, they would have been wrong.

Nevada — 3-7 entering the game — humiliated the Spartans in the second half thanks to a defense that proved to be surprisingly resilient in a 38-16 win. The Spartans didn’t score in the second half as Nevada poured on an additional 17 points to turn a win into a rout.

“I feel like we probably underestimated them,” SJSU linebacker Keith Smith told the Mercury News’ Jimmy Durkin.

Ya think?

Nevada had nothing to play for, their bowl hopes officially dashed last week with a loss to Colorado State. They were riding a five game losing streak, and new coach Brian Polian was busily confirming the suspicion that no one other than Chris Ault could lead that program to a bowl game. San Jose State was one win from a likely bowl game, and taking care of business meant they could exhale heading into two tough contests to close out the season, knowing that they were already bowl eligible.

It looks like they exhaled too early, and got left in the dust by a Nevada team that was all too eager to turn Saturday’s game into a track meet.

San Jose State’s defense let them down in the first half by not being able to solve Nevada’s running game or stop the Wolf Pack’s gimpy quarterback Cody Fajardo. Rather than come out and attempt to make a go of it in the second half after trailing by five at the half, rolled over in one of the most embarrassing displays by this team since the end of the Dick Tomey era.

This one is more on the offense than the defense: Remember, Wyoming hung 44 on the Spartans and still won. Other teams finally also kept pace with San Jose State — Colorado State and to a lesser degree Hawaii — because the Spartans defense just wasn’t up to stopping them.

That being said, San Jose State had made a living by outscoring opponents: 51 against Wyoming, 34 against Colorado State, 37 on Hawaii. This year’s San Jose State team is just built to do that really out of necessity, and when the offense flops around like a dying fish pulled from the water, it makes a loss inevitable.

The magic 140

The Spartans have a magic number this season in games: 140. That’s the threshold of rushing yards they have eclipsed each time they have won. San Jose State is 5-0 when they have more than 140 yards, 0-5 when they get less than that (they only had 58 on 30 attempts Saturday night.)

Here are the numbers:

Date Opponent Result Att Yds Avg
2013-08-29 Sacramento State W (24-0) 29 142 4.9
2013-09-07 @ Stanford L (13-34) 23 35 1.5
2013-09-21 @ Minnesota L (24-43) 17 47 2.8
2013-09-27 Utah State L (12-40) 35 101 2.9
2013-10-05 @ Hawaii W (37-27) 55 216 3.9
2013-10-12 @ Colorado State W (34-27) 45 177 3.9
2013-10-26 Wyoming W (51-44) 44 160 3.6
2013-11-02 @ Nevada-Las Vegas W (34-24) 45 312 6.9
2013-11-09 San Diego State L (30-34) 25 81 3.2
9 Games 318 1271 4.0

The other numbers of note that go along with this is 35: the threshold for passing attempts in a losing game. Only once in the Spartans’ five wins have they eclipsed 35 passing attempts (against Wyoming, 37), while only once in their five losses have they had less than or equal to that (at Minnesota, 35.) Each of the last three games, San Jose State has been outscored by double digits in the second half.

So the cycle has been like this: Attempt to run the ball, and if it fails, throw it on every down with the opponent expecting it because you’re likely behind in part because the defense can’t stop anyone. Leave your opponent lots of time to score more. It’s been a failure of the offensive coordinator Jimmy Daugherty, whose grade for this year is plummeting at this point, and head coach Rob Caragher, to not make meaningful adjustments at halftime to put games away.

All of David Fales numbers — completion percentage, touchdowns, interceptions — are trending in the wrong directions, a mixture of four factors: He is having to play from behind more often, with a much more porous offensive line, down a key target and with teams knowing what he can do (making the windows he can throw into much smaller because of more defenders.)  Credit to Nevada for more or less standing tall against the Spartans running game, but it was important to remember that the Wolf Pack shutting them down.

San Jose State got pass happy, and as has been the trend all season long, it was a lethal decision. Fales didn’t throw an interception in this game, but Nevada was guarding against deep routes and buttoning down once the Spartans crossed the Wolf Pack’s 40. When you start settling for field goals with the type of defense San Jose State has, as they did three times Saturday, you bound to fall behind.

Are you sure we weren’t watching Kaepernick?

Cody Fajardo was allegedly not 100 percent. He sprained his foot in the closing seconds last week against Colorado State, and didn’t start practicing again until Wednesday. None of that mattered once he stepped on the field. His performance was Kaepernickian in quality, and will give San Jose State alumni nightmares for months.

Fajardo led his team in rushing, averaging 7.4 yards per run and getting 104 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. He also had a extremely efficient night finding Brandon Wimberley (11 catches, 1 TD, 93 yards), going 20 for 27 with 174 yards and a TD.

The numbers just don’t get at what Fajardo and the Wolf Pack running backs (Kendall Brock and Don Johnson) were doing to San Jose State’s defense. Just because a poor performance is practically expected at this point doesn’t necessarily make it OK, and it was the way the trio was gaining yards was troublesome. San Jose State’s front seven were routinely getting outworked, and when they did have chances to stop them, they took poor routes to the runner and got beat anyway.

The most indicative play of this was a 35-yard end around by receiver Richy Turner in the third quarter. Only one defender, Bene Benwikere, realized what was going on, and just got beaten on the play. There was no backup coming, with the entirety of the defense on the other side of the field, pushed there by the Nevada defense. The pass coverage looked soft at its good moments, and nonexistent the rest of the time. Nevada’s receivers had space to catch balls that were almost always on target.

So, what now?

The Mercury News’ Jimmy Durkin spells out the stakes nicely:

A bowl game was more than a goal for this team, it was an expectation. If the Spartans can’t deliver in the final two weeks to extend their season, it would be a major blow by failing to capitalize on last year’s 11-win season and the presence of Fales, one of the best quarterbacks in school history.

The last two games are at least at home, a place where San Jose State has been much better. That is by no means to imply that they are easy:

  • Friday against Navy, which sports a run-only offense that is the fifth best in the nation and a strong defense.
  • The Friday after Thanksgiving against undefeated Fresno State, 9-0 right now, likely 10-0 by the time of that game, and gunning for a spot in the Fiesta Bowl (or similar bowl game.)

This was San Jose State’s last easy shot to wrap up a bowl game, and to make it easy on them selves by going 2-1 down the home stretch. There was a hang over feel to it — Chris Murray was spot on about the lack of motivation for the Spartans entering this game — after blowing such a critical game in such a bad way the week before.

The Spartans have never been good in Nevada, or really against the Wolf Pack in general. But this crude shellacking at the hands of a team in the conference’s doldrums had better be a wake up call people no longer are looking at to be in a bowl game come December. It’s up to the Spartans to prove to everyone they want it.

Around the Mountain West

Here’s how the rest of the conference did Saturday night:

  • San Diego State 28, Hawaii 21 (OT): Returning to form, the Aztecs’ offense played down to a Hawaii team that had no business taking them to overtime. Adam Muema punched in the winning touchdown in the first overtime, and finished with 163 yards on 24 carries. Hawaii had a chance to win on the final play of regulation, but Tyler Graham’s pass fell incomplete. In overtime, the Rainbow Warriors were stopped on four downs.
  • Colorado State 66, New Mexico 42: In the defense optional division, Colorado State’s Kapri Bibbs showed the Lobos how it’s done by running for 291 yards and six — yes, six — touchdowns on 38 carries. Garrett Grayson was also 20 for 28 passing with three touchdowns. Look on the bright side, Spartans’ fans: the team’s defense could be as bad as New Mexico’s.
  • Boise State 48, Wyoming 7:  Grant Hedrick was 27 for 36 passing with 265 yards and three touchdowns, and the Broncos defense manhandled Wyoming’s normally productive offense in the blowout of the night in the conference. The Cowboys got 55 rushing yards on 31 carries, with Shaun Wick touching the ball just 11 times. This may be a mortal blow to the Pokes’ bowl hopes, a good thing for the Spartans should they at least pick up one win.

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