Aspirations of capturing a second Mountain West championship in a three-year span did not seem far-fetched for the Spartans back in early October.
San Jose State’s football team was coming off its third straight convincing win — this one by a 40-7 scoreline against visiting UNLV — to improve to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in conference play. However, the Spartans stumbled the following week against Fresno State, followed that up with hard-fought wins against two of the worst teams in the Mountain West in Nevada and Colorado State, and then gave up 38 unanswered points in last Saturday’s 43-27 road loss to San Diego State.
The Spartans will now need some help in order to win the Western Division and advance to the Mountain West championship game. SJSU, which is currently tied with SDSU for second place in the West Division, will look to get back on track Saturday night on the road against Utah State.
“We need to have a great week of work,” said SJSU head coach Brent Brennan, who is in his sixth season in charge of the program. “You know, I think everyone’s disappointed. We know we did not play well enough to win on Saturday night at San Diego State and so we have to get back work.”
The Spartans (6-2, 4-2 MW) will surely be hungry for another shot at the Aggies, who came storming back for a 48-17 victory when the two teams squared off last season at SJSU’s CEFCU Stadium. SJSU scored the first 14 points of that game, but USU exploded for 24 points in the second quarter and then outscored the hosts, 20-3, in the second half.
“We just need to play clean,” Brennan said when asked what his team must do to leave Logan with a win. “We need to play cleaner than we did and execute at a higher level than we did against San Diego State. We know it’s going to be hard. We know they’re going to have a good crowd, we know it’s going to be cold and all of that stuff, and we’ve got to not worry about that stuff and just get ready to work and get ready to attack the opportunity that’s ahead of us.”
Last week’s performance against SDSU was a bit puzzling for a SJSU defense that hadn’t allowed more than 28 points in a game this season prior to last Saturday’s pivotal West Division showdown. This is a very talented Spartan defense — one which welcomed back all 11 of its starters from a year ago, which includes six athletes that garnered all-conference honors.
Among SJSU’s returning starters are tackling machine Kyle Harmon and defensive ends Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall. Harmon, a graduate season linebacker, ranks fifth in school history in career tackles with 414. The two-time first-team all-MW honoree amassed 133 tackles a year ago and currently paces his team with 74 this season.
Meanwhile, Hall was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, while Fehoko is a legitimate candidate for that award in 2022. Fehoko, who currently ranks first in the conference in tackles for loss (16.5) and second in sacks (8.0), garnered first-team all-league accolades last season. The junior is also his team’s second-leading tackler with 57.
“They’re dynamic on the D-line,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “They’re twitchy and dynamic — one of the best we saw last year and the guys that you’re talking about are back and play a lot of snaps.”
Hall has contributed with 10.0 TFLs and 6.5 sacks this fall, although 4.0 of those sacks took place against Nevada. The Spartans have racked up a Mountain West-leading 32.0 sacks this season, despite playing in one or two fewer games than any other team. Seven different players have recorded multiple sacks for SJSU.
Other key contributors for the Spartans on the defensive side of the ball are senior safety Tre Jenkins, sophomore linebacker Byrun Parham, graduate senior cornerback Nehemiah Shelton and graduate senior linebacker Alii Matua. Jenkins is the team’s third-leading tackler and he also ranks first in passes broken up with five, while Parham has chipped in with 50 tackles, including 7.0 for a loss, and Matua ranks third in sacks with 4.5. Shelton is the only Spartan to pick off a pair of passes this season, although 10 of his teammates have intercepted one pass.
The Spartans have been stingy defensively for the lion’s share of this season as they rank third in the conference in scoring defense (19.3 points an outing) and total defense (328.2 yards per game). SJSU has been especially effective defending the run as it has only allowed 3.3 yards per carry and 123.8 yards an outing.
“Yeah, they’re hard to run it against,” Anderson said. “The D-line is the strength of the team. They’re hard to throw it against, too, if you’re not careful because they can rush the passer extremely well. We found out last year. (Quarterback) Logan (Bonner) had to get picked up off the turf a lot. We we’re down 14-0 and we played a great defensive game against them last year. We got things going eventually offensively the way we needed to, but it was not easy.”
It’s been an up-and-down season for the Spartans on the offensive side of the ball, although they have scored at least 27 points in six of their nine outings. SJSU is only averaging 328.2 yards of total offense per game, but 27.1 ppg.
The Spartans have a dynamic dual-threat quarterback in Hawaii transfer Chevan Cordeiro, who is averaging 268.9 yards passing an outing. Cordeiro has completed 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,420 yards and 14 touchdowns, vs. just three INTs. The junior has rushed for 183 yards and eight more scores, but the yardage would be significantly higher if he hadn’t already taken a whopping 34 sacks. Thanks in large part to all of those sacks, the Spartans are averaging a measly 82.7 yards on the ground and 3.0 a carry.
“The games I’ve watched them I think they have the ability to run the ball extremely well,” Anderson said. “The numbers don’t tell you that and I think the reason he’s got the sacks is, No. 1, he’s never out of a play. In his mind, the guy’s got the feet to get out of any kind of mess, so … he’s taken some sacks that some guys wouldn’t, but you turn right back around the next play and he’s maybe 20 yards down the field. So, it comes with a silver lining, I think for them in that, yes, he’s going to take a sack, but he’s also going to create some really, really big plays. The game that I’ve watched, the really big games, in tight games when they’re won, they have run the ball well. They have a solid running back and they’re not afraid to run it.
“They’re willingness to spread the ball around to everybody on the field, to me, works with that. I mean, they spread you out, they spread the ball around and the next thing you know you’ve got a light box and they pop you with counter or zone, so I think the number’s a little bit skewed because of the sacks. I think they’re much better at rushing the ball than the numbers show.”
The running back Anderson is referring to is senior Kairee Robinson, who has gained 479 yards, has found paydirt nine times and has averaged 4.47 yards per carry.
Cordeiro has several options in the passing game, led by Nevada transfers Elijah Cooks and Justin Lockhart. The 6-foot-4 Cooks, a graduate transfers wide receiver, leads the team in receptions (46), receiving yards (737) and TD catches (five), while the 6-2 Lockhart has chipped in with 428 yards on 26 receptions. Both wideouts are big-play threats.
Five Spartans have contributed with 21 or more receptions in ’22.
SJSU has a small offensive line as its five starters are listed on the depth chart at 265, 288, 295, 282 and 275 pounds.
The Spartans have struggled a bit on special teams this season. They have given up two kickoff returns for TDs — one last week against SDSU — and have yet to block a punt or kick. Additionally, Taren Schive, SJSU’s kicker, has missed five field goal attempts, including two under 30 yards.
The Spartans have used two different punters — one has punted 25 times and the other, 19 — and they have averaged 41.5 yards on 44 attempts.