WEEK 11: San José State Spartans (3-5, 2-2 Mountain West) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (3-6, 2-3)
WHEN: Saturday, November 8 -- 7:30 PM, PST
WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, CA (41,031)
TV: CBS Sports Network
RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will broadcast the game in English and Spanish, respectively. The Spartans broadcast can be found in and around San Jose on 1590 AM.
SERIES RECORD: The Bulldogs lead the series 39-35-3. In the last meeting on November 19, 2013, San José State outlasted Fresno State 62-52 in a wild shootout at Spartan Stadium.
As the 2014 season enters its home stretch, the Bulldogs' postseason hopes are already on life support. The coaching staff's inability to settle upon a quarterback, as well as the erratic (and that's being charitable) performances from whomever happens to be under center, has sunk the offense, while the expected improvements on defense have not materalized. This is a team that, by all appearances, is going backwards if it's going anywhere at all.
By comparison, the San José State Spartans have not always played winning football in the last month, but it's hard to argue that they haven't played wildly entertaining football, at the very least. They also seem to have Fresno's number, having defeated the Bulldogs twice in a row. In a rivalry game, anything is possible, but it is certain that the Spartans are eager to put the Red Wave out of its misery early.
What to Watch - San Jose State
1. The Achilles heel of the Fresno State defense has been at cornerback all season, which means that it's an open question whether or not anyone will be able to consistently cover Tyler Winston. Though he has not been nearly as explosive as he was a year ago as a freshman breakout, Winston's production has been fairly steady all season even considering SJSU's quarterback switch. He's caught more balls per game than every Mountain West receiver but Rashard Higgins, and the Spartans have shown themselves to be a pass-first attack with Joe Gray at the helm. It would not be the least bit surprising if his game line on Saturday night exceeds his production from a year ago.
2. Malign the run defense all you will, scrutinize the offenses the Spartans have faced, but recognize that SJSU's pass defense just might be for real, anyway. Yes, they've seen fewer passes than any other team in the country, they've only picked off three passes and reside near the basement with just seven sacks. You still have to stop the opportunities thrown your way, and San José has done just that.
Their opponents' completion percentage still places them in the top 25 and the yards per attempt are tied for 8th in the FBS ranks. Cleveland Wallace III has been a revelation, as the sophomore leads the conference with ten passes defended, and Jimmy Pruitt has quietly had a solid year, too. For a woefully inefficient passing attack like Fresno's, which has been one of the worst in the conference all season, this seems like a particularly lopsided advantage in SJSU's favor.
3. What happens when a stoppable force meets a movable object? I refer, of course, to the Spartans' erratic performance in the red zone, which currently ranks 106th in scoring conversion rate, and the Bulldogs' anemic resistance inside the 20, which is tied for 97th. Gray could be considered an offender with his 47.6% completion rate, but kicker Austin Lopez has had a miserable 2014 after two very good seasons.
Depending on the timing of potential close-and-late situations, don't be surprised if head coach Ron Caragher dials up an aggressive play call to go for the kill. SJSU has gone for it more frequently on fourth down than any other team in the conference, and their conversion rate is the best in the Mountain West.
What to Watch - Fresno State
1. Will Marteze Waller ever see more than 18 carries in a game? The junior running back has been on an absolute tear for the last month, but you can be forgiven for overlooking his eye-popping stat lines because he's had a tendency to disappear from the playcalling late in games. He has run for more than 100 yards five times in the last six games, averaging an unbelievable 7.3 yards per carry in that time, yet he received just one carry in the fourth quarter against Boise State and five against UNLV. He's quite clearly the team's most valuable player on offense, but it remains an open question whether or not offensive coordinator Dave Schramm will bulk up his workload.
2. The Bulldogs made their name last year by being ultra aggressive on defense and finishing among the nation's leaders in sacks, but the big takedowns haven't come quite as often in 2014. Donavon Lewis has still had a pretty good season, though, and the Spartans will need to beware. Besides leading Fresno State with four sacks, it is worth noting that SJSU allowed two at critical times a week ago against Colorado State: The first was a strip-sack and led to the Rams' first score, while the second forced a third-and-long situation on the Spartans' last drive. Lewis, along with Ejiro Ederaine, remains a threat to get home so, as often as San José passes, tackles Wes Schweitzer and Evan Sarver will need to keep Gray clean.
3. Not to keep belaboring the point week after week, but Tim DeRuyter isn't really thinking about going back to Brian Burrell at quarterback, is he? After coming off the bench against Wyoming and delivering the most tire-firey of tire fire performances, the Bulldogs are back to square one under center after committing to finish the season with redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee at the helm. That lasted roughly 40 minutes. The teeth gnashing hasn't stopped since that plan was scrapped.
In terms of quarterback rating, Burrell's current numbers are the worst the Central Valley has seen in 25 years. No, really, check out Mark Barsotti's 1990 season for a moment and then ponder how that team finished 8-2-1. Zack Greenlee's statistics against Wyoming look pretty ugly on the surface, but he made no glaringly bad throws. The worst thing you might say is that he got a little skittish against the pass rush. Do not make the mistake of assuming Burrell would have done better.