If it’s possible for a team to pitch a shutout and still start its season in a pedestrian–if not lackluster–fashion, San Jose State did just that Thursday night in a 24-0 home victory over Sacramento State.
I’m stepping a little bit out of character in that summarization, seeing as I always approach the Spartans will a ton of optimism, but if last night was a true glimpse at the changes the offense will make under new coach Ron Caragher, things may not be so smooth in 2013.
A year after leading the nation in passing efficiency, quarterback David Fales completed only half of his 32 attempts, going for 225 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. The one sack the Spartans surrendered doesn’t tell the complete story of the duress Fales was under early on in the game.
Truth be told, a few overthrows aside, Fales was mostly still the effective and accurate passer he’s expected to be. He was the victim of several dropped passes he put right on the money (one of which looked like a certain 40-plus yard touchdown catch in stride) and one of his overthrows came on a wheel route by running back Tyler Ervin, who it turns out may have pulled up early on the play due to an injury (more on that later).
His completion percentage never had a chance to be stellar to begin with, because Caragher and offensive coordinator Jimmie Dougherty, seemingly determined to establish a deep threat, had Fales winding up and going for broke a lot more than he did last year, when the short and intermediate passing game was so effective for the Spartans. The plan provided a monster night for senior wide receiver Chandler Jones, who hauled in eight passes for 130 yards and touchdown. Only Noel Grigsby, who is likely to own every receiving record in school history by the end of the year, was able to contribute any other meaningful production on the outside (four catches, 51 yards, one TD).
Ervin, the undersized playmaker expected to be the workhorse back for the Spartans, bowed out early in the first quarter after handling the ball only twice. Mercury News beat writer Jimmy Durkin tweeted today that Ervin appeared to injure his right foot, possibly on a draw play (which would explain him not being at full speed on the wheel route). The absence of Ervin, who spent a good portion of last year injured, opened the door for senior Jason Simpson, who more than doubled his career rushing total by going for 135 yards on 21 carries, including a spectacular 55-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to close out the scoring.
Defensively, the Spartans probably exceeded expectations, especially when injuries are considered.
Missing last night was All-WAC linebacker Vince Buhagiar (out for the season), starting free safety Damon Ogburn (hamstring), starting linebacker Christian Tago (hamstring) and several regular contributors from last year. The Spartans broke in two new outside linebackers against the Hornets, and redshirt freshman Eugene Taylor (five tackles, two sacks) and junior Sean Bacon (three tackles) played well in their starting debuts. Freshman linebacker Moses Saucedo filled in nicely in his spot-start for Tago, getting in on eight tackles total.
The defensive standouts expected to carry the unit this season all rose to the occasion. Corner Bene Benwikere had an early interception that he returned 33 yards, and actually missed on a few more potential picks. Travis Raciti and Anthony Larceval clogged up the line and helped limit Sacramento State to a net of 86 yards rushing, and team captain Keith Smith was a force all night at inside linebacker, accounting for 18 total tackles.
Overall, an acceptable, but like I said initially, pedestrian output from the Spartans out of the gate. The defense seemed to have the most question marks coming out of fall camp, however that unit appears to be what may carry the team, at least early on. Considering the Hornets dominated time of possession 36:08-23:52, that the defense managed to bend the entire game but not break for a single score was impressive.
The offense, however, is a puzzle that may take a while for us to solve. I can’t ignore the fact that the 2012 offense would have probably put up another 14 points last night, but at the same time there are some new faces and new coaches. While Fales and his receivers seemed a bit out of sync last night, I saw with my own two eyes at the fall scrimmage just how in tune they actually are–on quite a few option routes that the team didn’t seem to favor last night. I trust that Caragher is smart enough to not fix what wasn’t broken; in fact, the idea that he rolled out the most vanilla offense possible and wasn’t willing to give Stanford a look at the offense they will actually face September 7th makes a whole lot of sense. As it is, the Spartans need every advantage they can create for themselves.
They have 10 days to tweak, adjust, or correct whatever didn’t go right against Sacramento State. In the same time frame they need to heal up as much as possible, because the most physical game they will play all year awaits them.
The most positive takeaway from San Jose State’s opener is actually the fact I am lamenting part of the performance; four years ago I would have never taken issue with any part of a 24-0 victory. But the talent has improved, and expectations have grown.