Preview: First battle for the Valley Cup for more than bragging rights

san_jose_stateA month ago, Friday’s San Jose State-Fresno State showdown had all the trappings of a classic. San Jose State appeared to be cruising through conference with big wins over Wyoming and Colorado State. Fresno State was everyone’s favorite BCS buster.

Much has changed in a month. San Jose State blew a double-digit lead to San Diego State and has yet to find its swagger, especially on defense. Fresno State’s schedule has been shown to be weak, as Rutgers and Boise State flounder; its BCS ranking has suffered as a result. A month ago, this looked like it would be for the Western division crown, as well as the newly minted Valley Cup.

It’s for much less now, but still a lot.

San Jose State isn’t even bowl eligible, and must beat the Bulldogs to even have a prayer at a postseason. Fresno State’s BCS hopes can die with a loss Friday or the following week in the Mountain West championship game. One play can be the difference between a trip to Phoenix with all the trimmings, or a disappointing slog to Las Vegas. One score could be the difference between more than $10 million for the Bulldogs.

So, yeah, a lot is riding on Friday’s game.

Here are five things to follow for the 77th meeting between the two schools and the first for the Valley Cup:

For all the marbles

Fresno State wants to realize its dream of a trip to the BCS. San Jose State wants to have a second straight postseason for the first time since the mid-1980s. Only one of those outcomes will be possible by the end of Friday’s game at Spartan Stadium. At 10-0, the Bulldogs cannot make it into one of the big bowls without running the table. They face one of the top offenses in the conference, and probably the best they’ve seen since early September in David Fales and Co.

Things don’t get any starker for San Jose State: After defensive meltdowns the last two weeks, the Spartans must win Friday to even have a shot at the postseason. The program has made it to back-to-back bowl games just once, under Claude Gilbert in 1986 and 1987, each time making it to the California Bowl. San Jose State’s season started with high hopes and has gone will officially go into the toilet without at least reaching bowl eligibility.

Battle of the top two quarterbacks

The Mountain West’s two best quarterbacks this season — San Jose State’s Fales and Fresno State’s Derek Carr — will meet Friday for the first and only time in college. Carr has almost all of Fresno State’s passing records, and Fales has spent the last few weeks rewriting the San Jose State ones (he set the team records for passing yards and passing TDs last week against Navy, and is two completions off from the school record in that stat.)

For what it’s worth, Carr had high praise for his San Jose State counterpart: “He’s very accurate. He makes throws that are NFL throws.”

My favorite line about this rivalry so far? Derek Carr has not beaten San Jose State as a starter. He lost his only other start against the Spartans, in 2011 — a 27-24 decision at Bulldog Stadium — which turned out to be Pat Hill’s penultimate game.

Two not-very-good defenses

This is the point in this preview where are I make an obligatory statement about the Spartans’ defense being horrific. I can think of one triple option team from Texas that would make the San Jose State’s defense look all kinds of silly just by pitching the ball around.

No, I’m not kidding. And that’s not even the best team at it, either.

Mobile quarterbacks have diced them up the last two weeks, and teams have been able to run with impunity against them for most of the season. The one silver lining to all of this is that this year’s Fresno State team doesn’t run the ball much, and likely won’t against the Spartans with Carr rolling. Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter is unimpressed with the Spartans defense, almost to the point of mocking.

“We were talking about putting the triple option in, but we won’t,” DeRuyter said to the AP. “That’s not a game we take a whole lot of time to look at to be frank.”

Fresno State’s Joel Quezada will be a major factor in this one. If he’s finding room, Derek Carr will likely also have a big game the Bulldogs will put a lot of distance between them and the Spartans early.

With that being said, Fresno State’s defense hasn’t been outstanding either. They’re middle of the pack in total yards allowed per game (407) and points allowed per game (27). Teams with comparable offense to San Jose State’s on their schedule — for example, Rutgers and San Diego State — have kept pace with the Bulldogs this season, each one almost beating them (both blew it on late field goals to win, then lost in OT.)

Las Vegas has the over/under for the game around 72 points, and it would be surprising if the two teams don’t obliterate that. San Jose State’s offense should be able to score on Fresno State’s defense. Problem for them is, can they keep pace?

A trophy? A trophy.

The addition of a trophy to this rivalry should have happened years ago. At this point … it feels a little contrived, especially since it’s called the Valley Cup and seems to carry no special significance (the recently added trophy to San Diego State’s regular meetings with Fresno is an old 1930s oil can found along the old 99 freeway, from the era when people regularly traveled that road between SoCal and the Central Valley.)

No matter. It’s existence, much like a wedding ring, consummates this rivalry that actually has a lot of (rather lopsided) history to it, and will be unveiled at Friday’s game.

A chance to start rewriting history

Everything is trending against San Jose State in this one. Rankings, total offense, team defense. Even history.

Fresno State has won 19 times in its last 26 tries, and two of those San Jose State wins were at the beginning of that run (1983, 1984). The Bulldogs have had just six losing seasons is the last 30 years; San Jose State has had 19. While Pat Hill built a literal bulldog of a program in Fresno, Fitz Hill torn down San Jose’s with poor coaching and silly decisions, leaving administrators to almost kill it off in 2005. San Jose State hasn’t beaten a ranked team since it beat TCU in 2000, at the tale end of the Dave Baldwin era.

Fresno State leads the rivalry 39-34-3, having taken the lead in the series for the first time in 2003, while they were in the midst of a 12-game win streak against the Spartans.

San Jose State walks into this game having won the last meeting between the two schools and hunting for its first winning streak against the Bulldogs since the mid-1980s. There’s incentive to show the Bulldogs that the Spartans, who won 11 games last year, can stay legitimate contenders in the Mountain West.

(Note: Catch my pick for this game and the others around the Mountain West Conference at noon.)

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