But for those within the program or following closely, resting on laurels should be the furthest thing from their minds. In fact, now is when the heavy lifting begins.
Fresh off their most lopsided win in more than a decade, a 47-7 road pummeling of New Mexico St. that saw the Spartans jump out to a 37-0 halftime lead and only surrender a score when their scrubs were in mop-up duty, San Jose St. will spend the next two weeks introducing themselves to the nation on the airwaves of ESPN2.
A few weeks back “The Deuce” picked up this weekend’s nonconference showdown with 6-4 Brigham Young, with a 7:30 pm kickoff at Spartan Stadium. It was announced this week that the Spartans’ final regular season game against AP No. 19 Louisiana Tech, also slated for a 7:30 pm kickoff at Spartan Stadium, will again be carried by ESPN2.
It’s a validation of sorts for the Spartans, who opened the season with a narrow 20-17 loss to highly regarded Stanford in a game that San Jose St. dominated for stretches and should have been able to pull out. Since then, their only hiccup has been their loss to 8-2 Utah St, and as they carry their own 8-2 record into week 12, the longtime WAC doormat has a chance to make a statement to any potential bowl suitors.
Making that statement will be a lot easier than, well … stated.
While the BYU football team doesn’t sport as impressive a record as the Spartans, the Cougars have been faced with much stiffer competition this season in their first year as an FBS-Independent program after having left the Mountain West.
They opened 2012 by welcoming Mike Leach back to the coaching ranks with a 30-6 drubbing of Washington St. Since then, the Cougars have suffered losses at the hands of in-state rival Utah and then-No. 24 Boise St; they were also defeated by Oregon St. and Notre Dame, currently ranked 15th and 3rd, respectively. Only Oregon St. defeated BYU soundly (42-24), as the other three losses were by a combined seven points.
However, since Week 1, their only win of note has been against ACC member Georgia Tech.
Regardless, the Spartans have a potentially daunting task ahead of them. It’s hard to make the case that BYU poses a tougher challenge than the one San Jose St. faced in Stanford; on the other hand, the Cougars did pull out a 6-3 victory over the same Utah St. squad that waxed the Spartans on their own field in their homecoming game.
The biggest challenge for Mike MacIntyre and his players could simply be rising to the occasion against the best opponent they have faced in five weeks. Since losing to Utah St, the Spartans have feasted on a paltry list of cupcakes. Their competition in October and early November has paled in comparison to the slate they played leading up the Aggies (Colorado St, San Diego St, Navy).
Against UTSA, Texas St, Idaho and New Mexico St, mistakes were easily forgiven. Every sack surrendered, every interception thrown, every fumble lost was far easier to atone for. Opponents’ mistakes were easier to capitalize on, and usually the Spartans could do so with favorable field position.
Now they head into a contest with a bigger, stronger, and much more battle-tested opponent, one that is sure to test the stamina and physicality of the Spartans.
While not an offensive juggernaut, BYU averages 304 pounds across their starting offensive line, compared to an average of 268 pounds amongst the SJSU defensive lineman they are most likely to face. The Cougars are led by quarterback Riley Nelson, a Utah St. transfer who last year unseated one-time high school mega-recruit Jake Heaps (now at Kansas) for the starting job.
Nelson’s 12/11 touchdown to interception ratio isn’t all that sexy, and neither is his 209.5 passing yards per game. But the senior has in the past shown an ability to rise to the occasion late in games, and can make plays with his feet. While he sports a 7-1 home record at LaVell Edwards Stadium (including last year’s 29-16 win over the Spartans), his struggles tend to take place on the road.
The offensive stats indicate that BYU is more “cloud of dust” than “aerial assault,” as they have three players with over 300 yards rushing on the season. Then again, one is Nelson, and the other his backup, Taysom Hill. Their leading rusher is Jamaal Williams, and his 5.3 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns suggest he could present problems for the Spartans.
The real story of this game will be told when the Spartans have the ball, as both teams’ strengths square off directly against the other’s. When the Spartans line up their 36th-ranked offense (FBS), it will be across from the fourth-ranked BYU defense.
Breaking it down further, BYU allows the 10th fewest passing yards in the country, while San Jose State throws for the ninth most. It’s in the running game that the Cougars’ defense will pose the greatest challenge, as they allow the fourth fewest rushing yards per game at 92.3.
While senior running back De’ Leon Eskridge is having a decent year with 729 yards and seven touchdowns, his production only amounts to 72 yards per game and the rest San Jose State’s backs don’t come close to his output. Compounding things is the lingering injury that sidelined sophomore playmaker Tyler Ervin likely until a possible bowl game. On top of that, third string senior running back David Freeman was suspended for the rest of the season this week, effectively ending his college career.
It’s going to be up to Eskridge to carry the load and his linemen to make that possible throughout the game, because without any semblance of a rushing attack for the Cougars to respect, the floodgates are going to open on quarterback David Fales. The last time an opponent disregarded the Spartans’ run game, Utah St. rolled up Fales to the tune of 13 sacks.
The good news for San Jose St. is they’ll be throwing against a depleted BYU secondary. Starting safety Joe Sampson was suspended from the team and subsequently withdrew from school following an altercation at a Provo-area restaurant Halloween night involving several BYU players (apparently even the Mormon university has their share of off-field incidents). Backup safety Mike Hague is out for the season, meaning SJSU’s four and five-wide receiver sets will bring the inexperience off BYU’s bench and hopefully playing into their favor.
The key to this game, in which BYU opened as a seven-point favorite and is now mostly down to being favored by three, lies where it always does in football: the line of scrimmage. If the Spartans can establish a reasonable running threat—one that BYU has to respect on first down and in short yardage situations—San Jose St. should be free to pick apart their secondary and open things up downfield.
On paper at least, it appears that their receiving corps of Jabari Carr, Noel Grigsby and Chandler Jones should be able to find consistent openings in the defense. Tight end Ryan Otten should be able to exploit BYU’s lack of speed across the middle and downfield. Keeping Fales upright and out of harm’s way, of course, is the only way that can happen.
If the Spartans can keep a mediocre offense in check and maintain the pace with which they’ve operated theirs throughout 2012, they’ll pull out a win that on a national scale will look rather impressive for their program. The one upside to being a historically downtrodden football team is that wins over any team that has ever experienced sustained success stand out on a larger scale than they should. SJSU’s win over Navy last year is a prime example.
A win over BYU would put the Spartans at 9-2, in front of a national audience no less, and position the team for its most high-profile bowl appearance and payout in school history. With a loss, the team is still 8-3 with a chance at upsetting a ranked opponent the following week.
But we’d all rather flood the Keyes Club post-game celebrating a win over the poor-man’s Notre Dame and looking for double-digit wins to end the regular season.