Here is the first post on BASG by Dray Miller, who from this day forward will be known as “Spartan Sports Guy.” Enjoy!
As they kick off 2012 conference play this week, the San Jose State Spartans are legitimately poised for something they rarely if ever have truly participated in: A WAC title run.
The timing couldn’t be better, assuming they would like to add at least one Western Athletic Conference football title to their trophy case. While hardly a blip on the national scene, the Spartans are making the jump to the Mountain West Conference in 2013, a move that brings their program both a step up in competition and much needed stability in the game of musical chairs that has consumed college football in recent years.
It also reunites them with much of the mid-90s version of the WAC, (sans Utah, BYU and San Diego St), which consisted of schools who at the inception of the MWC felt they were better off without the likes of Sparta. Of course, that was before Boise State made the MWC their one-night stand during the 2011-12 seasons.
For now, SJSU’s focus is on the task at hand: a depleted WAC, the once-proud conference that suffered the most during college football’s re-alignment process; the last place other desperate conferences could look to the replace their own poached members. As things stand right now, 2012 is probably its last as a football conference.
Fortunately, the Spartans were able to abandon the sinking ship just in time.
Coach Mac takes WAC by storm
Long a doormat in the WAC save for a few seasons of random success under former coaches Dave Baldwin and Dick Tomey, San Jose St has been a punching bag for strong and mediocre programs alike, and thus a distant afterthought on the Bay Area sports landscape.
Now Sparta appears to have the important pieces in place, starting at the top with their seasoned, energetic head coach Mike MacIntyre. Coach Mac was hired by recently departed Athletic Director Tom Bowen prior to the 2010 season, replacing Dick Tomey who in 2006 managed to take San Jose St to its first bowl game since the 1990 California Raisin Bowl. Tomey gave credibility and direction to the floundering program, but his last season was marked by a 2-11 record and Spartan football appeared back at square one.
In comes MacIntyre, the 2009 FBS Assistant Coach of the Year while at Duke University who also has stops with the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys on his resume. While at Ole Miss from 1999-2002, he played a major role in recruiting Patrick Willis to the university. In the three years since MacIntyre arrived in San Jose, those recruiting skills have been vital to the resurgence of his program.
One of his most important recruits has been quarterback David Fales, who signed out of Monterey Peninsula College after starting his college career as a reserve behind Colin Kaepernick at Nevada. Fales originally came to San Jose St as the backup plan to the failed Tate Forcier experiment; the former Michigan starter had transferred in after flirting with the Miami Hurricanes, and true to form couldn’t keep his act together long enough to ever suit up for the Spartans.
As it turns out, they are probably better off.
Fales has been exceptional through the first five games of the season, nearly guiding San Jose St to an upset over Stanford in his first FBS start; he followed that up with dominant performances against UC Davis and Colorado St. Against CSU rival San Diego St, he managed to put his first lackluster start of the year behind him in the fourth quarter, which is when he went 13-16 for 187 yards and three scores while guiding the Spartans to a 38-34 come-from-behind victory.
Already Fales is drawing comparisons to former Spartan Jeff Garcia, as he is on pace to break multiple single-season passing records at San Jose St. Jon Wilner of the Mercury News went so far as to proclaim Fales the best college QB in the Bay Area after Week 4.
Most talented Spartans ever?
Helping his transition to major college football is arguably the most talented receiving corps in school history, led by All-WAC senior tight end Ryan Otten and junior wide out Noel Grigsby, who set the school record for career receptions in week three. The transfer of former Minnesota starting running back Deleon Eskridge has bolstered the running game, though the team’s strength is clearly through the air.
Defensively, the Spartans could be entering WAC play with the most formidable front seven in the conference. Linebacker Keith Smith was one of the first recruiting gems of MacIntyre’s tenure, starting as a true freshman in 2010 and earning WAC Defensive Freshman of the Year honors. Sunnyvale native Travis Johnson has been a defensive stalwart going back to the Tomey era; the senior defensive end was the preseason media pick for WAC Defensive Player of the Year. Johnson is leading the nation in sacks on the season (7.5) and is the active career leader at 26.5. This week he was named among 25 finalists for the Rotary Lombardi Award, and was the only player from a non-BCS conference to make that cut.
Collectively, the Spartans have possibly as much talent on this season’s roster as they ever have. After being buried in “APR Hell” for much of the last decade (the easiest way to explain it is the program was punished with, among other things, a loss of scholarships for the poor academic performances of past teams), MacIntyre has taken full advantage of the school’s first-ever full allotment of 85 scholarships. In other words, the playing field at 10th Street and Alma is as even as it could ever be for a mid-major program.
The road to the WAC title
Their next opponent, Utah St., is experiencing an uprising of its own, making this mid-season game vital to the conference title chase. They also are chasing a WAC title before exiting for the Mountain West in 2013.
The Aggies ended a 12-year losing streak to instate rival Utah in week two, and followed that up with a narrow loss on the road to Wisconsin in week three. After wins over Colorado St and UNLV, they lost to instate rival BYU 6-3 last weekend and currently sit at 4-2.
Utah St’s ascension from WAC bottom-feeder to title contender has come in part at the expense of San Jose St the past few seasons. They own a three-game winning streak over the Spartans, with the last two being heartbreaking losses in which SJSU coughed away late leads. Fortunately, if their week four tilt with the Aztecs in any indication, the Spartans may have finally learned how to finish games.
Both squads have sound victories over Colorado St (Utah St won 31-19 on the road, SJSU 40-20 at home) and have narrow, what-if losses to major programs that either started the season ranked high or currently are (Utah St to Wisconsin, San Jose St to Stanford).
The key to victory against Utah St lies in whether San Jose St’s mostly potent offense can find a way through the Aggies’ stout defense, which is ranked 17th in the nation. After allowing freshman kicker Austin Lopez to carry the team to a 12-0 victory against Navy two weeks ago, the Spartan offense will need to get back to the pace it set in week three against the Rams, when they had three different receivers go over the 100-yard mark.
The winner of this game is in prime position early to challenge for the WAC title and that coveted spot in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl that comes along with it. The front runner at this point is undefeated Louisiana Tech, currently #23 in the AP polls with victories over Illinois and Virginia, and a chance to make more strides in the polls this Saturday when they take on Texas A&M.
If San Jose St can secure a homecoming victory this weekend and keep their winning streak intact through the remaining WAC schedule, Thanksgiving weekend could feature one of the most important games in Spartan Stadium history, when the Spartans wrap up their regular season against La Tech.
For now, the trajectory of the program couldn’t be any better. After going 1-12 in his inaugural season, MacIntyre led his inexperienced squad to a 5-7 record in 2011, which included victories over Navy and longtime rival Fresno St. With a 4-1 record heading into conference play, a bowl appearance and, dare I say WAC championship, may no longer be what it always seemed–a pipedream.