06 October 2011

Does the San Jose State Spartans' win over Colorado State signal a turnaround? and other WAC picks

On Saturday, 1 Oct at Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins, Colo., the San Jose State Spartans (of the Western Athletic Conf.) defeated Colorado State Rams (Mountain West Conference) 38-31 in Colorado State's homecoming game. Throughout the game, SJSU had control and even exploited Colorado State turnovers for touchdowns. At one point during 2nd quarter, SJSU led 24-7. The Spartans won on a last-minute TD pass. This game was shown on the Mountain West Sports Network "the mtn" but not streamed on ESPN3.com, and highlights are here on themtn.tv:

(0:24 in video, 11:02 left in 2Q) Spartan safety Duke Ihenacho returns a fumble by Ram running back Raymond Carter for a 20-yard TD. Spartans up 17-7. Next play in the video: Brandon Rutley runs 23 yards for the TD that put SJSU up 24-7.

As I was listening on SJSU football flagship station KLIV 1590, the game got intense starting late in 3Q as Colorado State rallied with 2 TD's to tie the game 31-31 late in the 4Q. However (1:33 video, 3:38 left 4Q), a Ram go-ahead 48-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. Spartan freshman WR Jabari Carr then ran a 38-yard pass from Matt Faulkner 10 yards for the winning TD, SJSU up 38-31. With 13 seconds left (1:49 in video) Pete Thomas' 43-yard pass intended for Thomas Coffman instead landed in the hands of Spartan defensive back Ronnie Yell at SJSU's 10. Coffman will forever regret running too far out away from Yell. That's what you call a FAIL Mary pass.

This win means a turnaround?

As the Spartan web site reports, this is the Spartans' 2nd win a row following a 34-24 win over New Mexico State, SJSU's first 2-game winning streak and road win since 2008 and first non-conference road win since 21 Sept. 2002 at the Big 10 Illinois. Given how Colo. St. is currently at first place in the Mountain West, some could argue that this is an upset victory. And the other aforementioned factors of this win imply that SJSU could see a few more victories this season and a real turnaround from the disastrous 2009 season (2-10 and 1-7 WAC) and 2010 (1-12 and 0-8 WAC). These two victories, by margins of 7 and 10 points, are a far cry from the barely won games of 2009 (Dick Tomey's final year) and 2010 (Mike MacIntyre's first year):
- 26 Sept 2009: a 19-9 win over the I-AA Cal Poly;
- 28 Nov 2009: a 13-10 win over New Mexico State won by a last-minute field goal. NMSU would finish 2009 the second-worst team in the WAC just one win over SJSU;
- 18 Sept 2010: a 16-11 win over I-AA Southern Utah, decided by yet another last-minute play, a TD by Lamon Muldrow.

Also in 2010, SJSU lost TWO games on last-minute interceptions: 13 Nov 2010 v Utah State 38-34 and 27 Nov 2010 at Louisiana Tech 45-38, two others on missed field goals (4 Dec 2010 at Idaho 26-23 in OT, a blocked FG while tied 20-20 forced the OT, where SJSU scored FG then Idaho a TD; 2 Oct 2010 v the I-AA UC Davis 14-13). So far in 2011 SJSU lost only the home opener v Nevada 17-14 due to such an interception.

The pundits have predicted yet another crummy season for the Spartans. For example, Sports Illustrated magazine predicted SJSU to finish the 2nd-worst in the WAC with an overall 3-9 with 2-5 in the WAC; Bleacher Report predicted the same place. If SJSU beats BYU, the Spartans hit another dent in the critics' windshield.

Spartan rush leader Rutley likely out of BYU game
However, Spartans rushing leader Brandon Rutley, who's produced many reliable offensive yards and some long TD runs too, left the SJSU/CSU game due to a sprained ankle. The Spartan Daily reported that whether Rutley will play in Provo will be a "game-time decision." Backup running back Jason Simpson contributed 21 yards in the Spartans' winning 70-yard drive on Saturday. As a special teams player and RB in 2010 following a redshirt freshman year, the Jamaican-born Simpson played only 4 games and sat out the rest of the year due to injury. With the running game now possibly on the legs of Simpson and freshman Ben Thompson, coach MacIntyre (again see the linked Spartan Daily article) "assured that the offense won’t experience any drastic changes against BYU." Indeed, the Colo. St. Rams have currently allowed an average 24.8 points per game, the BYU Cougars 25.0 (source: ESPN.com clubhouse pages). According to USA Today, BYU has allowed 356.6 yards per game, and CSU 344. (BTW, SJSU has allowed 408.8...and SJ's area code is 408! interesting)

A declining BYU quarterback
Cougar starting QB Jake Heaps' completion rate, now an average 54.1%, has declined each game, from a high 63.2% in BYU's losing opener against Mississippi to 44% in BYU's Friday night comeback 27-24 win against the WAC Utah State in which Heaps' backup Riley Nelson (avg. completion 61.9%) took over late in 3Q. While San Jose State has scored 30+ points in each the past 2 games, BYU has yet to score over its 27 points from Friday's game. Despite this, the wire service Sports Network picks BYU to win 31-20 over SJSU, on the grounds that BYU gagged Utah State's passing yards to 122. Comparing Utah State and San Jose State's offense is like comparing the winter climate in the Rocky Mountains to that in Gulf Coast. Utah State has had a laughable 3 losses from blowing 4Q leads (against Auburn, Colo. St., and BYU). Never mind how USU QB Chuckie Keeton has passed at most for 213 yards (again v Auburn), while Faulkner passed for 383 yards against Colo. St. And if BYU's defense is so solid, why have all three of the Cougars' victories come by 7 points or less and always because of a 4th quarter go-ahead play? My pick, therefore, will be SJSU by 3 (unlike TSN, I abstain from picking scores).

Other WAC picks
ESPN's Friday game of the week (also streaming on WatchESPN.com) will be the #5-ranked Boise State (Mountain West) visiting SJSU's down-state rival Fresno State, kickoff at 6PM Pacific (7PM Mountain Time for Idahoans and 9PM Eastern for the biggest region of America). Pick: Boise State by 27. There's a reason why Boise State graduated from the WAC to MWC this year. The Broncos have been a WAC powerhouse for the past several years...and recently earned 3 years' probation for football including 9 revoked scholarships. Also the broncos last week pulverized last year's top WAC team Nevada 30-10.

Saturday's games:

Louisiana Tech (1-4, 0-1 WAC) at Idaho (1-4, 0-1 WAC): Louisiana Tech by 7. Yes, Idaho did make a bowl in 2009 and was nearly .500 in 2010, but La. Tech has the advantageous QB (Nick Isham with a 61.5% completion rate vs. Idaho's Brian Reader with 53.7%) in addition to a far more productive running back unit that's scored 11 TDs in 692 yards, while Idaho has 3 TD's in 372 yards.

UNLV (Mountain West) (1-3) at Nevada [Reno] (1-3, 1-0 WAC): UNLV by 10. Seems every week a WAC game is on ESPN Friday night, and/or a WAC team plays an in state rival. Although having a sluggish start, UNLV upset Hawaii in Las Vegas 40-20 on 17 Sept, and Hawaii is normally one of the better WAC teams! UNLV won on the rushing game with 186...compared to a measly 6 for Hawaii (relied on the passing game instead with 4 turnovers as a cost). Nevada's Tyler Lantrip, who spent his first years with the Wolf Pack backing up the now-San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick, is struggling now with a 53.3% CR and 5 interceptions over only 2 TD passes. Meanwhile, the Runnin' Rebel's Caleb Herring has a 59 CR, 5 TD's, and 4 INTs, and thus gives the Nevada-Las Vegas receiving unit more productive track record than Nevada-Reno's (6 TD's in 679 yds v. 4 TD's in 718 yds.)

Wyoming (Mountain West) (1-3) at Utah State (1-3): Wyoming by 3. Wyoming is off to a rather good start now after a 3-9 season in 2010. Whatever happens, Utah State will win only by avoiding the costly 4th quarter mistakes that cost them games regularly.

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