Despite our own attempts at narratives, rarely does a single game encapsulate a team's season like we want to say it does. There are too many plot twists in a given season, too many odd bounces from an oddly-shaped ball, too many instances of inconsistent 19- to 22-year-olds acting inconsistently. But "rarely" is not "never." And if ever there were a legitimate "game as full season" narrative to push, it came on a Friday night in mid-October, when Tessitore Magic struck and San Jose State beat Hawaii, 28-27.
San Jose State bolted to a 20-7 halftime lead on the power of four Hawaii turnovers on consecutive possessions. Receiver Chandler Jones scored two first-half touchdowns, neither on a pass reception (he scored on a 20-yard run and returned a fumbled kickoff return 23 yards to the house). But just as quickly as they built the lead, they gave it away. They turned the ball over on five consecutive possessions -- two fumbles, followed by three interceptions, and when Hawaii's Joey Iosefa scored on a 32-yard run with 11:46 remaining in the game, San Jose State trailed, 27-20. Then the game turned absurd. Defensive end Travis Johnson blocked the proceeding extra point attempt, and Duke Ihenacho picked it up and began to return it for what seemed like a sure two points. And then he came up lame. And then he scored anyway.
We were just getting warmed up, however. San Jose State missed a 50-yard field goal that would have brought the Spartans to within two points, then Johnson blocked another kick, a 42-yard field goal attempt. San Jose State lost a fumble on the very next play, and with a chance to ice the game on fourth-and-1 from the SJSU 44 with 1:31 remaining, Hawaii elected to punt instead of going for the jugular. Six plays and 87 yards later, SJSU scored with 36 seconds left and won, 28-27.
The thrilling win featured every ingredient of San Jose State's 2011 campaign in concentrated form. Turnovers (SJSU forced 33 of them, fourth-most in the country, but gave 32 away themselves, fifth-most)? Check. Yards (SJSU gained 279 per game and allowed 426)? Check. Mostly quality special teams play (SJSU was 16th in Special Teams F/+)? Check. Occasional acts of great quality and athleticism, masked by fatal, damning flaws on both sides of the ball? Check and check.
San Jose State was nothing if not exciting in 2011. They played in 10 games decided by 10 points or fewer, and they came within one close loss of bowl eligibility. They have improved in each of head coach Mike McIntyre's first two seasons in San Jose, however, and if they can account for some losses on the offensive line and at quarterback, they could do so again in 2012.
I used the words "depth" and "potential" and "options" a lot with San Jose State, and that's odd considering, well, how poor a team the Spartans have been in recent years. […] There is some individual upside here. Keith Smith is a potentially amazing outside linebacker. There is an incredible amount of depth for a mid-major defense. There are some really interesting young weapons on offense. This is a really interesting coaching staff.
I always say that injuries ding you in the present tense but benefit the future tense. Now we get to find out if I'm right. Of course, it will probably be difficult to gauge progress in terms of wins and losses again. SJSU faces road trips to Stanford, UCLA, BYU and Fresno State this fall, meaning they will have to win six of eight even remotely winnable games to make a bowl. That probably isn't realistic, though a jump to 3-4 wins will be nice, tangible progress for a team that is putting together some decent pieces. With the teams remaining in the WAC, there is an opportunity to seize some power. San Jose State will still be a young team well into 2012, and they may have something to say about becoming a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
As was expected, SJSU got blown out by Stanford, but they were reasonably competitive in losses to BYU and UCLA, and they took out a fading Fresno State team in their finale. Not only did they improve demonstrably on the field, but they damn near reached bowl eligibility. By any stretch of the imagination, that is strong progress and a successful 2011.
For the second straight year, McIntyre was forced to find a new offensive coordinator this offseason. Last year, he replaced Tim Landis with John DeFilippo when Landis took the head coaching job at Rensselaer Tech. DeFilippo left to become quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders last month, however, so McIntyre brought in Northern Arizona coordinator Brian Lindgren. Here's how I assume the interview went:
McIntyre: "Your stats suggest you like to throw the ball. Do you like to throw the ball?"
Lindgren: "I like to throw the ball."
McIntyre: "When can you start?"
As has consistently been the case under McIntyre, the Spartans' offense was all about the pass in 2011; they passed about 10 percent more than average on standard downs, 11 percent more on passing downs, and 11 percent more in the red zone. In all, they ranked 105th in Adj. Run-Pass ratio. This was likely the result of general offensive philosophy, but it may have also had something to do with capability -- they just weren't very good at running the ball. A line that protected the passer rather well (with help from a lot of quick passing) just couldn't open up holes, and even if they could, it is unclear whether the running backs would have gotten through them. Lindgren's presence could result in some changes, however, as NAU was more prone to running the ball than SJSU has been in recent years; plus, the Lumberjacks threw downfield quite a bit, averaging 14.2 yards per completion.
Of course, an offense needs a quarterback. Does San Jose State have one? Matt Faulkner, he of strong completion percentages and quite a few interceptions, departs, and his 2011 backup, Dasmen Stewart, left something to be desired. He was perhaps the Spartans' most explosive runner, piling up 118 yards in just 18 carries, but he also completed just 40 percent of his passes and, including sacks, averaged a meager 2.8 yards per pass attempt. NAU quarterback Cary Grossart averaged 27 passes and seven carries per game, so perhaps Stewart's legs will come in handy, but he has to be able to throw. If he can't, then he will be overtaken, either this spring or this August. Junior college (and Nevada) transfer David Fales, sophomore Blake Jurich and freshman Joe Gray each bring interesting traits to the table, and Fales (16-for-22, 257 yards) easily outpaced Stewart (4-for-14, 56 yards) in a recent scrimmage.
If Stewart can both get by with the pass and add something to the run game, the SJSU could be entertaining again in 2012. Departed running back Brandon Rutley had his moments, rushing for a combined 472 yards (5.7 per carry) against New Mexico state, Colorado State and Navy. But he averaged 3.2 per carry in the other nine games. Between sophomore Tyler Ervin, Washington transfer David Freeman and Minnesota transfer DeLeon Eskridge, the Spartans should be able to replicate Stewart's production. The receiving corps, meanwhile, is intriguing. Junior Noel Grigsby had an incredible catch rate of 71.8 percent; he is a wonderful possession receiver -- he caught 12 of 15 passes versus Hawaii, 11 of 14 versus BYU, 11 of 12 versus Idaho, eight of nine versus Louisiana Tech and eight of nine versus Fresno State. He and junior Chandler Jones were both perfectly built for a quick-strike attack, so it will be interesting to see how they adapt if Lindgren attempts to go downfield more often. Tight end Ryan Otten could be a great weapon; he caught 65 percent of the passes thrown his way last year and averaged a healthy 15.2 yards per catch.
Of course, a downfield attack can only work if the receivers have time to get downfield. SJSU must replace three multi-year starters on the line, leaving behind a wealth of upperclassmen but few with starting experience. Second-team All-WAC tackle David Quessenberry is a nice weapon, but he'll need help.
Under veteran defensive coordinator Kent Baer, San Jose State's defense has built a steady personality by playing things very conservatively, attempting to prevent big plays, trying their damnedest to take away the pass, and hoping to eventually force mistakes from opponents. If you live to play another down, you may be able to eventually force errors. This worked reasonably well for SJSU in 2011, as they played efficiently on standard downs and forced a myriad of turnovers on passing downs. The Spartans came up with strong gameplans -- they ranked 51st in First Quarter S&P+ -- but they probably needed a couple more athletes to make some plays and get them off the field. They faded as a given half wore on (they ranked 71st in the second quarter, 49th in the third, and a lowly 100th in the fourth … not good for a team playing so many close games), and they do have to replace some interesting pieces like Duke Ihenacho and linebacker Tiuke Tuipulotu, but quite a bit of intriguing talent returns. This won't be an incredible mid-major defense, but after solid improvement in 2011, one should expect a little more in 2012.
The Spartans perhaps get more intriguing the further you get from the line. Safety James Orth actually made more plays than Ihenacho over the course of the season, picking off four passes and forcing a fumble. If former walk-on Cullen Newsome can do a reasonable Ihenacho impersonation, then Orth and corners Ronnie Yell, Bene Benwikere and Tyler Ervin should make for a solid defensive backfield. (Yes, Ervin. He might be their best running back, cornerback, kick returner AND punt returner; early signs are that he might play more on defense than offense this year.)
That's not to say there aren't potential stars in the front seven as well. Junior Keith Smith was incredible as a freshman (14.5 tackles for loss) but was asked to play more of a "tackling machine" role in 2011; he led the team in tackles, but his TFLs fell to just 3.5. Linebacker play was a general weakness last fall -- that SJSU ranked 59th in Adj. Line Yards but only 75th in Rushing S&P+ suggests that problems started once runners got past the line -- but Smith still has quite a bit of upside, as does big junior Vince Buhaglar (6-foot-4, 240 pounds). And if or when SJSU is able to leverage its opponent into passing downs, end Travis Johnson can go off. He racked up 9.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. Johnson has more help up front than he used to -- tackles Anthony Larceval and Travis Raciti combined for eight tackles for loss, mostly against the run. In all, four of the top seven on last year's line have departed, but the three best play-makers return.
With Larceval, Raciti, Smith, Orth and Newsome, SJSU will be potentially great up the middle. If they can figure out how to improve on the edges and leverage plays back toward the middle, they could be able to, at worst, consolidate the gains they made in 2011, when they improved from 107th in Def. F/+ to 66th.
Wow, are there some winnable games on the schedule this year. After some first-week penance against Stanford, San Jose State plays just one team projected higher than 79th this season.
They host UC Davis, Colorado State, Utah State, Texas State, BYU and Louisiana Tech; go 4-2 against that slate, and you only have to go 2-3 against a weak road slate of San Diego State, Navy, UTSA, Idaho and New Mexico State to reach bowl eligibility for just the third time since 2000. And that's where we'll define the success-or-no-success line for the Spartans.
With two conference mates (UTSA, Texas State) quite new to FBS and two more (Idaho, New Mexico State) having to replace quite a few cogs, San Jose State is in good shape to cruise into a Top 3 finish in the WAC this season. It is far from certain -- losing three multi-year starters on the offensive line is scary, and there are still question marks at quarterback and on the edges of the defense. But Mike McIntyre's team has improved in each of his two seasons, and he continues to put a deeper, faster team on the field. Year Three could offer a hair more stability and another win or two.