Winning a college football game in rarely easy.
Despite evidence to the contrary – SDSU has only lost 19 times since 2015 – defeating another team full of scholarship athletes week after week is a difficult feat. Case in point: San Diego State came into the game with the nation’s ninth longest winning streak at four games. San Jose State entered the contest looking for their first three-game winning streak since 2013 and their first 3-0 start to a season since 1982.
SDSU and SJSU have now met 44 times, but this was just second time both teams started the game with no losses.
All week, the touted matchup was SJSU passing game against SDSU defense. Led by graduate transfer Nick Starkel, the Spartan’s passing ranked fifth in the nation, averaging 353.5 yards a game. Meanwhile, the Aztec defense came in third in the nation in pass defense, giving up a minuscule 109 yards per game. Unfortunately, this matchup never materialized. On the first possession of the game, Cameron Thomas drilled the SJSU quarterback to the ground. Starkel limped off the field with an undisclosed injury with 13:48 left in the first quarter. Television cameras showed Starkel going into the locker room as San Jose State started their second possession, and by the start of their fourth, he was seen walking back onto the field in street clothes. Replaced by #16, Nick Nash, San Jose State’s offense was completely different schematically, focusing more on the read-option, running game than the pass. It was not effective. They punted on each of their first five possessions.
SDSU began their first drive on their own two yard line. A quick three and out, put newly- named, starting punter, Tanner Kuljian, kicking from the back of his own end zone. Kuljian blasted the punt 70 yards, shifting the field position and the momentum. Following another SJSU punt, the Aztecs got their first points of the game. A 51-yard bomb from Carson Baker to Jesse Matthews on a play-action pass set up a Matt Araiza 34 yard field goal. The Aztecs took that 3-0 lead into the second quarter.
Two possessions later, Carson Baker scored the first touchdown of the game on a one-yard run. The Aztecs began the drive at the 50-yard line. Two negative plays put the Aztecs in third and 14, but Baker found Kobe Smith for 23 yards to keep the drive alive. Six consecutive runs, including an 11-yard scamper by Chance Bell, brought the ball to third and goal from the one. Baker punched it in from there, forcing himself between two defenders on a designed read option.
Yet another Spartan punt gave the Aztecs a chance to take complete control of the game. On third and 13 from near midfield, BJ Busbee lined up in the slot on the left side of the formation. He ran deep across the middle to the right of the field. The defense completely lost him. Unfortunately for the home team, Baker also lost him until it was too late. A defender pressured Baker, tipped the ball, and it fell incomplete. Following the play, the momentum in the game completely shifted.
With 4:11 left in the half, SJSU returned to its pass-first approach and moved the ball for a score just before the half. Unlike last week against Utah State, SDSU’s defense offered stiff resistance. SJSU was just better. Last week Tre Walker’s TD catch was the catch of the night on ESPN’s Sportscenter. Tonight, another spectacular play showed this was no fluke. Walker made another amazing play. This time, diving out of bounds, he someone managed to catch the ball and tap his toes before his body hit the turf. His catch gave SJSU a spark and a first down. Four plays later, Derrick Deese Jr. made a sensational catch of his own for a touchdown. 10 – 7 was the score at the half for the second week in a row.
Against Utah State, SDSU took command of the game in the third quarter, this week the Spartans kept their momentum going. They held SDSU on fourth and 1 and caused a three and out on the Aztecs two possessions of the quarter. Nash and the Spartan offense continued to move the ball. Their momentum was briefly stopped on an interception by Tariq Thomson. It was Thompson’s 12th career interception. The Aztecs’ defense would not be so fortunate on the Spartans’ next possession. Nash found Bailey Gaither on a short pass. Gaither lined up wide right, motioned left, but at the ball’s snap ran back to the right. SDSU’s corner, Tayler Hawkins, lost sight of Gaither expecting him to continue motioning to the other side of the formation, but when Gaither stopped, he was completely out of the play. The touchdown gave San Jose State a 14-10 lead.
Falling behind woke the Aztecs from their slumber. They went on a crisp, seven-play 69-yard touchdown drive and looked very much like the team they showed during the first two weeks of the season. Three Greg Bell runs netted 24 yards, another big play to Jesse Matthews put SDSU in the Red Zone. Three plays later, Bell found the end zone, SDSU retook the lead 17-14, and the momentum was back in their favor.
The defense caused a quick three and out to give the offense the ball back with 12:26 left to play. SDSU had first and 10 from its own 39. Two plays later, Carson Baker trying to throw an incomplete pass at the feet of his running back on a busted screen play, instead threw the ball backward for a -21 yard fumble that was recovered by the Spartans at the SDSU 17 yard line. The Aztec defense that came into the game seventh in the nation in rushing defense suddenly could not defend the run. Two running plays by Tyler Nevens gave the lead back to the Spartans at 21-17. SDSU’s streak of nine consecutive games holding their opponents to 17 points or less came to an unceremonious end.
On the ensuing drive, the Scarlett and Black moved the ball all the way to the SJSU 11 yard line. But a run for no gain and a sack brought third and 14 from the 15-yard line. A field goal would have brought the Aztecs to one point, but Jeff Hecklinski instead put his faith in his young quarterback. Baker, on a pass intended for Daniel Bellinger, however, threw an interception in the end zone. There was a miscommunication between the TE and his QB, and the result was an untimely turnover.
The Spartans took the ball, trying to run out the clock, but were only able to run for one first down. With 3:47 left in the game, they were forced to punt, setting up the game’s most controversial play. Jordan Byrd was back to receive the punt. As the ball was in the air, he hesitated to call for a fair catch. The ball and the defender, Tre Walker, arrived at the same time as Byrd raised his hand to finally signal for the fair catch. Walker clearly interfered with Byrd’s ability to catch the ball, and kick-catch interference should have been called. The Aztecs should have had the ball on their own 42, down four, with about 3:30 left to play. Instead, the referees called a fumble, which was recovered by the Spartans. This was Byrd’s second muffed punt of the season.
San Diego State’s defense had gone 41 straight quarters without allowing two scores in any one quarter. That streak would end tonight. SDSU needed to stop the Spartans on third and ten to force a field goal attempt, but instead, gave up a 12-yard run and a first down. Two plays later, SJSU scored the last points of the game on a 14 yard run by the star of the game, their backup QB, Nick Nash.
Winning a football game is never easy, but winning when you turn the ball over three times as much as your opponent, is nearly impossible. Consider, the Aztecs are 34-2 in their last 36 games when winning the turnover battle. Tonight, they lost that battle, and for only the first time in the last eight tries, the San Jose Spartans walked away victorious.