San Diego State Aztecs vs. San Jose State Spartans
CEFCU Stadium – San Jose, CA
Kickoff: Friday, October 15 @ 7:30pm
TV: CBS Sports Network
The Aztecs first Friday game of the season finds them on the road against the defending Mountain West champions in the Spartans’ annual Homecoming game.
The Spartans enjoyed a fantastic yet unexpected 2020 season, which included a road victory over the Aztecs and culminated in a victory over Boise State in the MWC Championship Game. The conference championship was San Jose State’s first title of any kind since sharing the 1991 Big West Conference title and first outright crown since winning the Big West in 1990.
In last year’s meeting, the Aztecs offense outperformed the Spartans offense in most categories, including passing yards, and dominated the time of possession 36 min to 24 min, but three turnovers in the fourth quarter, including crucial fumbles by Carson Baker and Jordan Byrd, ultimately doomed the Aztecs in a 28-17 loss.
“It wasn’t any fun. I guarantee you that,” responded Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke when asked on Tuesday how difficult it was to rewatch the final twelve minutes of last year’s game in preparation for this week.
The Aztecs held a 10-0 lead in the second quarter and a 17-14 lead with twelve minutes remaining in the game before the turnover barrage. The sting of the loss was magnified because Spartans quarterback Nick Starkel was injured on the opening drive. SJSU’s comeback was led by backup Nick Nash, who took his first collegiate snaps at the position.
Before last season, the Aztecs had defeated the Spartans seven consecutive times.
Heading into this season’s matchup with the Spartans, the Aztecs are ranked 24th in both major polls. They are 5-0 on the year and are one of only 13 undefeated teams in college football. The Aztecs are listed as eight-point favorites for the game.
The Spartans’ last win against a ranked opponent was in 2013 against 16th ranked Fresno State. They are 0-6 against AP Top 25 opponents since then.
Given the short week for a Friday game, both coaches mentioned on Monday that their preparation week started on Sunday, one day earlier than their typical preparation weeks.
Team: San Jose State Spartans
City: San Jose, CA
2021 Record: 3-3 (1-1)
Series Record Against SDSU: 20-22-2
Head coach Brent Brennan is in his fifth season at the helm at San Jose State. He was an assistant coach with the Spartans from 2005 through 2010, primarily on the offensive side of the ball after he initially was named the quarterback’s coach at SDSU in 2005. He was the wide receivers coach at Oregon State from 2011 through 2016 before returning to become the head coach at SJSU. Brennan played wide receiver at UCLA from 1991 through 1995.
The Spartans were selected to finish 2nd in the West Division behind Nevada and ahead of SDSU and have three defenders on the 2021 MWC Preseason All-Conference Team as they returned almost all of their starters on both sides of the ball.
Senior quarterback Nick Starkel returned this year after a great season last year, in which he passed for 2,174 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was also named the MVP of the MW Championship Game. Expectations were high for Starkel entering 2021. However, the early part of this season has not been kind to him. He has only completed 69 of 137 passes for 992 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions. The senior from Argyle, Texas, sustained an upper-body/arm injury in the Spartans’ fourth game of the season and has not played since.
Backup quarterback Nick Nash took over and has completed 26 of 41 passes for 347 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception the past two games. Nash is also a threat to run the ball, rushing thirteen times for 90 yards on non-sack plays. Before Starkel’s injury, Nash spent snaps at wide receiver to utilize his athletic abilities, much like how the Aztecs’ previous opponent, New Mexico, utilized Trae Hall.
Coach Brennan noted that Nash “is better [than Starkel] at getting himself out of trouble” due to his speed and “his ability to extend plays and drives is going to be really important.” As noted earlier, Nash played the majority of the game in last season’s meeting, so the Aztecs should be better prepared for his dual-threat capabilities. Coach Hoke recalled that “Nash came in and lit us up…was a bit of a nightmare for us” after Starkel’s injury last year. Nash completed 16 or 25 passes for 169 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He constantly made plays outside the pocket, either finding receivers open down the field or rushing for 53 yards himself.
Senior running back Tyler Nevens has 74 carries for 406 yards and three touchdowns. He is sixth on the San Jose State career rushing list with 2,301 yards, only 18 behind Yonus Davis and 63 behind Gerald Willhite. Davis and Willhite finished their careers with 2,319 and 2,364 yards, respectively. Nevens could pass both in this week’s game. The Spartans have an experienced offensive line led by senior left tackle Jackson Snyder and will look to dominate the line of scrimmage against the Aztecs.
The biggest concern heading into the season for the Spartans was replacing top wide receivers, Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither. Despite the emergence of tight end Derrick Deese, Jr., their passing game has struggled this year. Their leading wide receiver on the season is junior Isaiah Hamilton, who has totaled 17 receptions for 269 yards. His best game was this past Saturday against Colorado State, catching four passes for 84 yards and his only touchdown on the season.
On defense, the Spartans returned all but one starter from last season, including two 2020 First Team All-Mountain West defensive linemen, senior Cade Hall and junior Viliami Fehoko. Fehoko, who led the conference with 12.5 tackles for loss last year, leads the Spartans with six this year, with two forced fumbles.
“I think they’ve got a really good defensive line,” stated coach Hoke. “They’re fun to watch. They’re very active. They’re very physical. They’re tough, and we’ve got our hands full.”
Senior linebacker Kyle Harmon leads the team with 58 tackles this season and has added three tackles for loss. In last year’s meeting between the teams, the Spartans defensive front harassed the Aztecs, collecting nine tackles for loss, including four sacks. The most significant turning point of the game was Fehoko’s pressure forcing Carson Baker into a throwaway pass, which went backward and was recovered by the Spartans defense in the fourth quarter. The Spartans also stuffed a QB sneak by Baker on a 4th and 1 from the Spartans 20-yard line earlier in the game.
The Spartans went 2-2 in non-conference games this season. They blew out Southern Utah in their season opener, 45-14, behind 394 passing yards and five total touchdowns from Starkel. In their first road game was against USC, a Pac-12 opponent ranked 14th in the AP Poll at the time, SJSU lost 30-7. While Starkel threw for over 300 yards, he was intercepted twice and did not throw a touchdown.
Before playing their final two non-conference games, the Spartans began their quest to defend their conference championship by playing at Hawaii in week 3. They defeated the Rainbows, 17-13, in a defensive battle. Hawaii had a chance to win the game on a throw into the end zone from the 21-yard line on the final play of the game, but San Jose State escaped with a win when the pass fell incomplete.
The Spartans followed up with a lopsided loss at Western Michigan, 23-3. Starkel was injured early in the contest and forced to leave the game. The Spartans defeated New Mexico State, 37-31, in their next game. SJSU won the shootout behind Nash, who made his first collegiate start at quarterback and completed 15 of 18 passes for 193 yards and three touchdowns.
This past Saturday, the Spartans returned to conference play. They lost badly to Colorado State, 32-14, and fell to 1-1 in conference play this season and snapped a nine-game conference winning streak. The Spartans’ defense allowed two touchdowns to the Rams but also forced CSU into kicking six field goals, or the score could have been even more lopsided. Coach Brennan commended his defense despite the position that the offense repeatedly put them in, stating, “[they] did an outstanding job holding [CSU] to field goals after turnovers.”
They allowed Rams QB Todd Centerio to complete 19 of 23 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown and the Rams to rush for 217 yards, including RB A’Jon Vivens, who had 114 yards on 31 carries.
If there is one statistic to point to for the Spartans 3-3 record after finishing 7-1 last year, it would be turnovers. Last year, the Spartans finished their season with a +2 turnover margin, including an incredible zero fumbles lost. This season through six games, their turnover margin is -10, including seven fumbles lost. Their defense has only been able to force three turnovers, one via interception, and two fumble recoveries.
Players to Know
Junior defensive lineman Cade Hall (#92).
Hall, a team captain, was selected as the 2021 MWC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year and one of 35 players named to the 2021 Walter Camp Player of the Year Award Watch List. After recording ten sacks, he was selected as a 2020 All-American and was named the MWC Championship Game Defensive MVP.
His father, Rhett Hall, played defensive lineman for eight years in the NFL in the 1990s and won a Super Bowl with the 49ers. So far this season, Hall has not been his usual spectacular self, only collecting 17 tackles, two and a half tackles for loss, and one sack through six games. However, there would be no better opportunity for Hall to break out and show professional scouts his NFL abilities than this game against a ranked Aztecs team with a dominant rushing game.
Senior tight end Derrick Deese, Jr (#87).
If you watched last year’s game against the Spartans, you already know about Deese, who torched the Aztecs with five catches, 76 yards, and a touchdown, which he took away from Trenton Thompson in the end zone. This season, Deese leads the team with 18 receptions for 327 yards and three touchdowns. This season, his best game was a seven reception, 130 yard game against New Mexico State with Nash at the helm at quarterback.
Deese is listed at 6’4, 235 lbs., a long, lanky tight end who runs great routes. Coach Brennan praised Deese in his Monday press conference, stating, “He never misses practice, takes all the reps, and is diligent about the details, the route running, [and] the blocking he is asked to do.” Coach Hoke believes Deese is one of the best tight ends in the conference due to his route running, good releases, and catching ability. “We have to make sure we know where he is on every snap,” stated coach Hoke.
He is the son of former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Derrick Deese, who played fourteen seasons in the NFL, was named All-Pro twice, and was part of the 49ers Super Bowl XXIX team featuring Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
For the second consecutive week, the head coach of the upcoming opponent has called the Aztecs the best team in the Mountain West Conference. “They know who they are and play to their identity,” said coach Brennan in his Monday press conference.
Through five games, the Aztecs have relied on an explosive running game and a dominant defense to stay undefeated. SDSU and Army are the only teams in FBS ranked in the top 10 in rushing offense and defense. They are 10th in rush offense with 244.4 rushing yards per game and 2nd in rush defense with 50 rushing yards allowed per game.
The Aztecs are now 52-2 the last 54 times they have rushed for at least 200 yards in a game, including all five games this season. The running back group is deep and talented, led by Greg Bell, who coach Brennan believes is “an NFL player.” Bell has surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark in every game he has played this season except for the Towson game in which he was injured in the first quarter.
Bell has lost three fumbles this season, which has become a concern for the coaches. Offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski attributes Bell’s fumbles to trying to do too much and instead wants him to “take what’s there and get to the next play.”
The Aztecs’ offensive line is a significant factor in their success running the ball. Coach Brennan recognizes that the Aztecs always have great offensive lines. “I’m jealous,” joked coach Brennan, “where do they get these guys from?”
To answer coach Brennan’s question, the starting five Aztec offensive linemen are from Carlsbad, CA, Turlock, CA, Laie, HI, Chula Vista, CA, and Inglewood, CA.
Senior center Alama Uluave credits the running backs for pushing the offensive line. “They put a lot of pressure on us to finish our blocks, open holes,” he stated. “[We] push ourselves to be the best unit in the Mountain West.”
When asked on Tuesday whether the offensive line was looking forward to playing against the Spartans after what happened in last year’s game, Uluave stated, “that game is burned in our minds. [We have] been looking forward to it since the day after we lost last year. We’ve had this game circled on our calendar. We didn’t do [well] enough last year, and we are looking to make up for it.”
The New Mexico game saw the return of starting quarterback Jordon Brookshire after he missed the past two games. Brookshire started slowly in the game, and his footwork was off, which coach Hecklinski said “could have been a byproduct of not practicing for three weeks” as he was recovering from his injury. Brookshire settled in and played more efficient second and third quarters en route to a 31-7 victory.
In last year’s meeting between the teams, the Aztecs offense was able to move the ball effectively. Greg Bell rushed for 109 yards, and wide receiver Jesse Matthews had a career-high 139 receiving yards on six catches. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, they were not able to finish the majority of their drives with points due to mistakes and turnovers.
The Aztecs will need Brookshire to continue where he left off against New Mexico from the outset against the Spartans. Utilizing his legs in the run game will be a crucial aspect the Aztecs did not have with Carson Baker in last year’s game against the Spartans.
The Aztecs defense has held six straight opponents to less than 100 rushing yards for the first time in its Division I era (since 1969) and have not allowed a rushing touchdown to any opponent this season.
In addition to being 2nd in FBS in rushing yards allowed per game, the Aztecs defense is also highly ranked with 16.6 points allowed per game (16th in FBS) and 270.4 yards allowed per game (7th in FBS).
In his Monday interview with XTRA 1360, coach Hoke identified two key areas he would like the defense to improve on. First, he lamented that they “have not created enough turnovers…[to] give our offense even more opportunities.” Through five games, the Aztecs have forced nine turnovers, less than two per game.
Second, coach Hoke did not believe the defense tackled as well as they had in previous games against New Mexico. “We need to get back to fundamentals and angles to the football,” said coach Hoke.
Senior linebacker Caden McDonald stated on Tuesday that there has been a big emphasis placed on these two items in the first two days of practice this week, specifically tackling drills and turnover circuits to get the ball out of the offensive players. “It takes all eleven guys to force turnovers, [it’s] not just one guy,” stated McDonald, stressing that each of the three defensive units plays a part in forcing a turnover.
Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix was asked what the mantra of the Aztecs defense is during his appearance at the Monday press conference. He pointed to three items that the defense talks about daily:
- Play with effort and toughness
- All eleven players on the field know what to do, how to do it, and get to the ball with bad intentions.
- Keep the opposing offense out of the end zone.
While noting that they are preparing for both Spartan quarterbacks, coach Mattix assumes that Nash will start. “I was embarrassed by the lack of adjustments I made in last year’s game,” coach Mattix said when asked about Nash’s success after entering for Starkel. He also mentioned that playing against dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson this past week helps in their preparation for Nash.
In last year’s matchup, the Aztecs defense only collected one sack and was not able to keep Nash from breaking contain and making plays outside the pocket.
McDonald echoed Uluave’s sentiments that the San Jose State game has been circled on their calendars. “That put a bad taste in our mouths…[they] ran all over our field and celebrated in our faces because they beat us at our place,” stated McDonald on Tuesday.
Given the Spartans’ offensive line and the Aztecs’ defensive lines are the same as last year, this will be an excellent opportunity for the Aztecs front to make amends for last year’s game.
Punter Matt Araiza continues to lead FBS with a 54.1 yard average per punt on 33 punts. He has only attempted eight field-goal attempts through five games, connecting on five of them. This is a product of an efficient Aztecs offense in the red zone, converting touchdowns instead of having to settle for field goals.
The Aztecs used the bye week to get very healthy, returning many starters back to action, including cornerback Dallas Branch for the first time this season. Branch played with a club on his left hand but was able to play well in his opportunities against New Mexico, which included a fumble recovery. The only starter who remained out against New Mexico was wide receiver Kobe Smith, who sustained an injury from a car accident a couple of days before the Towson game. His status is currently unknown.
The Spartans have not yet announced their injuries for the upcoming game. During his Monday press conference, coach Brennan was unwilling to provide any updates or specifics on Starkel’s status, other than to say he is “hopeful that [Starkel] will be ready to go soon.” The Spartans also missed defensive linemen Lando Grey and Jay Kakiva in the Colorado State game, which shifted offensive lineman Lamar Barrett from offense to defense. It is unknown whether either of those linemen will play against the Aztecs.
Opponent’s San Diego Connection
- Freshman cornerback Jalen Bainer attended San Marcos High
- Freshman cornerback Zavion Reese attended San Marcos High
- Sophomore running back Kenyon Sims attended Lincoln High
- Sophomore safety Chance Johnson attended Steele Canyon High
- Freshman linebacker Jordan Allen attended Cathedral Catholic High