It’s hard to capture it unless you are there, but San Jose State head coach Brett Brennan has built something special in the Bay Area. SDSU athletic director JD Wicker had a perfect view on Saturday Night.
About two and a half hours prior to kickoff, Wicker walked down 10th Avenue toward a small gathering of SDSU alumni, who were tailgating on a grassy area between SJSU’s soccer and beach volleyball facilities. In the dimly lit street, past a houseless man who skillfully belted out the lyrics of the music that could be heard from the nearby football stadium, Wicker walked in a tightly billed SDSU hat.
If the Aztecs’ top athletic administrator wondered in that moment how a school with this set-up could be two-touchdown favorites over his own football team with easily the best stadium of any institution SDSU played on the road this year, no one could have blamed him.
The answer to that question is Brent Brennan.
Only long-time Aztec fans will know the depths SJSU’s football program had sunk to when Brennan was hired on December 7, 2016. For the uninitiated, a look at Brennan’s first game against SDSU serves as an informative example.
The Aztecs traveled to San Jose in November of 2017 at 7-2. The Spartans entered the contest 1-8, losers of seven straight, with their only win coming over FCS Cal Poly. To call the game a blowout wouldn’t do it justice. The game resembled a high school team playing a D1 program.
In SDSU’s 52-7 win, they threw the ball seven times, its fewest in program history at that point, for 94 yards. Even as they attempted to run out the clock, there was nothing SJSU could do. The Aztecs set school records for number of rushing attempts (71), rushing yards (554), time of possession (43:19), highest passing completion percentage (85.71%) and yard differential (448).
The next year, SDSU won 16-13. Then, 27-17 in 2019. The schools have split over the past four years, including SJSU’s 24-13 victory on Saturday night. SJSU no longer resembles a high school team compared to SDSU in any area except football stadiums.
Despite a $70 million investment in a new athletic facility that includes a row of premium suites for football games, CEFCU Stadium is an eyesore. Players enter the field of play via a ramp on the north side of the edifice because there are no locker rooms inside. Players from the visiting team suit up in the adjacent Simpkins Stadium Center.
Simpkins also hosted Saturday night’s postgame press conference. Inside, the branding of the culture Brennan has built was everywhere.
Among the many motivational graphics on the walls leading into the office that served as a defacto press room were the names and faces of all the Spartans with 3.0 or higher GPAs. Littered throughout were “Core Values” posters. They read, “Constantly improve my mind & body, Respect & care for my teammates, Honesty, Treat women with respect, no guns, no drugs, (and) no stealing.”
“Well, I don’t know the inner things about San Jose State,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke responded when asked about Brennan’s efforts at SJSU. “He’s a good friend, though. We both had times at Oregon State one time in our lives, so we have some things that are in common.”
Brennan’s encouraging disposition is infectious. He is active on the sideline, constantly cheering on his players. A few seasons ago, he reportedly was a finalist for the Arizona job.
As Wicker seeks a new coach to head his program, he would be wise to consider Brennan for the job. No one in the country has done more with less.
Saturday was Senior Night in San Jose. SJSU graduated only 17 players this year. The best is ahead of them. They started the season 1-5 against a similar gauntlet that SDSU had to begin its year. Unlike the Aztecs, though, the Spartans have improved as the year has gone on. The victory Saturday was their fifth straight as they reached bowl eligibility for the third time in four seasons.
A win next Saturday could propel them into the Mountain West Championship. Should they earn that and win it, it would be Brennan’s second MW title. He won his first in 2020.
In many ways, he resembles everything Wicker discussed at this past Tuesday’s press conference. Brennan is clearly a culture builder. More importantly to a fan base starved for a compelling offense, Brennan has flipped SJSU’s fortunes through elite QB evaluation.
In 2020, he brought in Arkansas transfer Nick Starkel. In only eight games of the shortened season, Starkel threw for 2,174 yards. He was named the MVP of the Mountain West Championship Game after throwing for 453 yards and three touchdowns.
Hawai’i transfer Chevan Cordeiro followed Starkel in 2022. He threw for 3251 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. This year, Cordeiro has 2,309 yards and 17 TDS.
Brennan’s offense is balanced and explosive. It is everything SDSU has tried to implement since 2020 without success. He is the MW’s second-highest-paid coach at $2.3 million. Wicker will likely have to offer him a raise to lure him to America’s Finest City.
Brennan, though, should be attracted to everything SDSU has to offer. No matter his clear genius at SJSU, he is limited there. His tenure has likely reached its peak.
Would the possibility of reaching new heights with the Aztecs be enough to entice him to move? Wicker would be wise to entertain the idea.
Special Teams Design
SDSU’s game against SJSU displayed Brennan’s skill as head coach in another way. Against USC to open the season, the Spartans climbed back to within 14 points late in the third quarter with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. On the ensuing kickoff, they gave up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that sealed the game for the Trojans.
More than just a game-changing play, the return showed a weakness in SJSU’s team. Their kickers would not be able to kick the ball deep into the endzone, and with the recruiting disadvantages the Spartans possess, their depth would be tested on returns throughout the season. Brennan and his staff solved the problem in a unique way.
Brennan began kicking short to up-men, squibbing kicks, and trying surprise onsides. A phase that should have favored SDSU on Saturday was completely nullified. The Aztecs lined up with their hands team on kickoff returns all night.
SJSU just kicked the ball deep in response, but with the returners out of position and its best blockers on the sideline, they only returned a pair. Cam Davis had the longest at only 21 yards.
What Rocky Long excelled at during his tenure with the Aztecs was turning negatives into positives. His 3-3-5 defense turned tweeners unfit for most defensive schemes into stars by building a system around hybrid players. While most of the nation moved to spread passing attacks, SDSU thrived with a power run game.
One path to success for SDSU’s future is to reinvent its disadvantages and turn them into advantages. Brennan has done that well at SJSU.
Disastrous 2020 recruiting classes
Brady Hoke’s second tenure as head coach initially brought with it the boost in recruiting fans and the media were hoping to see. SDSU moved from frequently ranking in the 70s, 80s, and 90s nationally into the 60s in 2021. Hoke’s first class in 2020 was essentially the final class of Rocky Long’s tenure.
Fast forward to 2023. The 2020 class should make up the backbone of SDSU’s two-deep. The players should be seniors or redshirt juniors impacting the Aztecs every game. Of the 17 high school or junior college players the school announced on February 5, 2020, only five are still with the program, and 12 have transferred. CB Dez Malone, RB Jaylon Armstead, and LB Vai Kaho are the only three to see significant time this year. Filling in where the team needed him, Jelani Whitmore has bounced between WR and CB. Darrell Masaniai has not figured into the rotation at linebacker.
The 2020 class makes the 2021 iteration appear stable in comparison. Eight of the 22 players in Hoke’s first full class transferred, but six have become key performers with the team in 2023, including CB Noah Tumblin, LB Zyrus Fiaseu, and C Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli. Another eight have seen time this year either on offense, defense, or special teams.
The poor results from the 2020 class showed up in an odd statistic Saturday. LB Brady Anderson (Class of 2021), FB Nick Gardinera (2022), and FB Leo Kemp (2023) made the first starts of their careers against SJSU. They were the 18th,19th, and 20th Aztecs to earn a first career start in 2023.
Among the many reasons for SDSU’s 3-8 record is this youth movement. It is also the reason the next coach could turn things around quickly. If he is able to keep the current players in the fold while adding some key performers in the offseason, the 2024 roster will be a relatively experienced group.
Coach Prime failed in evaluating Brady Nassar
When Deion Sanders jolted the college football world by taking the job at the University of Colorado, he changed the lives of a lot of people. Included among them was SDSU defensive lineman Brady Nassar. Without an explanation or much communication, Sanders withdrew the scholarship offer the previous staff had given Nassar and 12 other athletes.
After watching Nassar and Colorado for nearly a full season, pulling the offer was a mistake. The Buffs rank 128 out of 130 in total defense, giving up 462.6 yards per contest. It is doubtful Nassar would have impacted that total much this year, but what he brings to a defense is the effort needed to be successful.
On Saturday, Nassar showed off that quality on his one tackle recorded in the box score. SJSU ran the same bubble screen that had gone for touchdowns multiple times against SDSU’s defense this year. The Spartans set it up perfectly, and as it developed, it looked like it would go for a huge gain. Instead, Nassar raced back into the play and chased down the wide receiver from behind.
Nassar is still not getting a huge number of stats, but as the season has progressed, his spot in the defensive line rotation has solidified. That alone for any true freshman is impressive.
In the midst of losing seven of eight games, including five in a row, coach Prime bemoaned his players because they “flat-out quit” following his team’s 56-14 drubbing at the hands of Washington State. His comments give added context to the competitive nature in which Nassar performs. Boulder would be better if Nassar played in that locker room. SDSU is fortunate to have him.
Embrace the Old Oil Can
SDSU’s chance of an undefeated season ended in game three. After game five, any hope of finishing the year ranked vanished. Its Mountain West Championship hopes came crashing down after losing to Nevada. Two weeks ago, it lost its chance at a bowl. The only trophy left to play for in 2023 is the Old Oil Can. Aztec nation should embrace the opportunity.
The 2023 season has gone worse than most imagined. November 25 offers an opportunity for the fans, the players, and the coaches to put the year behind them. A win over rival Fresno State, who just dropped a game to New Mexico, would allow SDSU to end its season with a trophy in hand.
The nation’s best individual game trophies – The Apple Cup, the Axe, or the Old Oaken Bucket – hold significance because the fan bases and universities involved in them elevated their importance. 2023 would be a great year for the Old Oil Can to capture the hearts and minds of Aztec Nation. They have nothing else to win in 2023.
Editors note: The original article said both teams locker rooms are in the Simpkins Center. Only SDSU’s were located there. The visitors locker rooms are SJSU’s old locker rooms
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.