Thearon W. Henderson
Can a superior San Jose State squad overcome the loss of head coach Mike MacIntyre and win an 11th game for the first time in school history? Dec. 27, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN. Picks, players to watch and more below.
5 Players To Watch
David Fales (QB, San Jose State, Jr.). He completed 24 of 35 passes versus Stanford, 27 of 34 versus Colorado State, 29 of 34 versus Navy and even 38 of 50 versus Utah State. He can take a sack now and then -- he took an incredible 13 versus Utah State, actually, a total that would make even Pitt's Tino Sunseri blush -- which could get him into trouble versus an exciting Bowling Green defense. But he is third in the country in pass efficiency, and he is the lynchpin for San Jose State's brutally efficient, diverse offense. The Spartans rank a healthy 32nd in Off. F/+, and the primary reason for that is Fales' arm. Well, that and Noel Grigsby's legs.
Noel Grigsby (WR, San Jose State, Jr.). Grigsby may be undersized (5'11, 175 pounds), but after spending most of 2011 in an efficiency role (89 catches for just 886 yards), everything clicked for the junior in 2012. He was still perfectly efficient, as evidenced by his 72 percent catch rate (each of SJSU's top four receivers has at least a 72 percent catch rate, actually), but he averaged 16.1 yards per catch along the way, earning him the right to be called one of the country's best receivers, size be damned. He caught 11 passes for 181 yards against Utah State and finished the season with 15 catches for 259 yards and two scores in wins over BYU and Louisiana Tech. Bowling Green has a lovely pass defense; Fales and Grigsby will test it severely.
Travis Johnson (DE, San Jose State, Sr.). SJSU's offense was the star of the show, but the Spartans wouldn't be 10-2 without a steady, well-rounded defense that ranks 49th in Rushing S&P+ and 37th in Passing S&P+. The Spartans logged 85 tackles for loss and 40 sacks, and Johnson alone accounted for much of that. His 19 tackles for loss rank ninth in the country, as do his 12.0 sacks. That four other Spartans had at least nine tackles for loss tells you all you need to know about the activity level of this defense.
Chris Jones (DT, Bowling Green, Sr.). Of course, while Johnson's sacks are ninth-best in the country, they are only second-best in this game. Chris Jones managed 12.5 from the defensive tackle position, which is nearly unheard of. Jones and Johnson produced quite similar, disruptive stat lines (they each had 19 tackles for loss, five hurries and two forced fumbles). Controlling the line of scrimmage will be key for both offenses in this game.
Anthon Samuel (RB, Bowling Green, So.). If there is a weak link in this game, it is the Bowling Green offense, which ranks just 103rd in Off. F/+. But you can't blame Samuel for that. The sophomore was one of many prolific MAC running backs this season, needing just 17 carries per game to rack up 966 yards and 10 scores and catching 20 passes as well. Aside from an occasional long ball to one of two all-or-nothing threats (Chris Gallon or Shaun Joplin, each of whom combine strong per-catch yardage with iffy catch rates), Samuel will be the source of most of Bowling Green's big plays. And the Falcons will need at least a few.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. Quality. Bowling Green's offense aside, these teams bring a lot of true quality to the table in this one, and we should expect a rather well-played game overall. San Jose State's offense and defense are each Top 50 units, and aside from a breakdown against Kent State (31 points, 425 yards), the Bowling Green defense was dominant over the final eight games of the season (last eight games minus Kent State: 210 yards and 7.7 points per game). Kent state did find room to run, but since Toledo did the deed on September 15, only one team has thrown for more than 230 yards against this defense. Then again, this defense hasn't seen a pass offense this good since, well, the Toledo game.
2. Active defenses. Again, both of these defenses take risks, make a lot of tackles for loss and sacks, and they get their hands on a lot of passes. That could mean a lot of momentum-turning plays on each side of the ball. And that's fun.
3. To see what might become of Colorado. Mike MacIntyre didn't appear to be Colorado's first choice, but he might have been the best one. The Buffaloes hired MacIntyre away from San Jose State in December, and it was an inspired choice considering a) the rebuilding job he faces in Boulder and b) the rebuilding job he just completed in San Jose. In 2009-2010 -- not that long ago, obviously -- the Spartans went just 3-22. They ranked 116th in the F/+ rankings in 2009 (Dick Tomey's final year) and 109th in 2010 (MacIntyre's first year) but improved to 85th in 2011 and, stunningly, 32nd this season. They reached the Top 25 for the first time since 1975, two years after fielding a mostly dreadful squad. This was a complete program turnaround, and it didn't take MacIntyre long at all. Now he faces the exact same task, in a tougher conference. But now's a good chance to get a look at the program he leaves behind. It is interesting, fast and rather deep.
4. Bonus football. Bonus football! And pretty colors, too!
3 Key Factors
1. "David Fales back to pass..." It's strength versus strength when San Jose State tries to pass the ball. This may be the best pass offense Bowling Green has faced this year, but it is also the best pass defense SJSU has faced since Utah State brought Fales down 13 times. If SJSU averages better than, say, 8-9 yards per pass attempt, I can't imagine Bowling Green will have enough offense to keep up.
2. "Second-and-long for Bowling Green..." If the Falcons want to win, they absolutely, positively have to get yards on first down and avoid passing downs. BGSU ranks 100th in the country on passing downs; Chris Gallon and Shuan Joplin are certainly big-play threats on all downs, but they have averaged just 6.3 yards per target on passing downs, with a dreadful 49 percent catch rate. Second-and-long for BGSU will pretty quickly turn into third-and-long ... which will turn into "San Jose State's ball in good field position."
3. The hangover. You never quite know what to expect from a bowl team playing under an interim coach. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer takes over for this game before handing the reins to newly hired former University of San Diego coach Ron Caragher, and while that could mean a "Win it for Coach!" mentality, it could also mean sloppiness and a general funk. If the good version of San Jose State shows up, it should be far superior to its opponent in this one. But that is a pretty big if at this point.
F/+ Pick: SJSU by 20.6.
Bill's Pick: SJSU by 10. If McIntyre were still on the sideline, I would be predicting a big SJSU win and talking about how this could be a statement performance for a team that could be just as good in 2013. Instead, I'm wondering about the hangover effect of McIntyre's absence and hedging my bets.
1 Shutdown Fullback
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