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Spartan Football: 2017 Postmortem

What the ashes and remnants can tell us

San Jose State head coach, Brent Brennan. Mountain West Connection Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

With the Super Bowl and National Signing Day afterglow fading, signaling the formal hibernation of football - a recap and oblique summary of the 2017 Spartan football season in hopes for a 2018 resurrection.


Way before Coach Brent Brennan’s inaugural season kicked-off, I first started commenting whimsically with some blind optimism that the Spartans could at least break even despite Brennan being unproven and despite what the previous year’s stats were saying. I mean...how much worse could things get from 2016?

Well, it seems like and feels like the lowest of the low after a 2-11 season in 2017. Statistically ranked at or near the bottom of nearly every key category that matters, it’s not even worth throwing numbers or rankings out, because it was...the bottom of the bottom. Turnovers, yards-against, etc. etc. It was ugly. So, enough said about statistics for this post.

Since becoming a more formal writing contributor, I’m going to stay within the spectrum of being a realistic analyst and a non-verbal communications observer and hopefully, offer an enlightening Spartan football 2017 summary - that, by this article’s end, will lead to a prediction: a firing or a continuation to 2019 for Coach Brennan?

ASSUMPTIONS

Since nothing is in a vacuum, we have to take into account of what happened with other first year MWC coaches who fared very well or came out about even. In particular, Fresno State head coach, Jeff Tedford, managed a historic 2017 turnaround for the Bulldogs with mostly the same team from 2016. And Nevada head coach, Jay Norvell, who was about par in his debut year vs. their previous year. So any compare and contrast with Coach Brennan going into his year-two takes things like this into account.

Also...yes, we all understand that almost half the roster were new players. And yes, the first part of the season was a brutal schedule against top-ranked squads on the road. And yes, injuries ensued and added to the season’s ineffectiveness. And yes, the Spartans were outmanned, outgunned, outclassed and to add...outmaneuvered.

All said, Coach Brennan will and should get the benefit of the doubt in year one, until... the culmination of the 2018 season.

WHAT’S WRONG?!

As I mentioned no Spartan stats are really worth mentioning, it’s going to be about the stuff in between the lines that speak volumes to what the Spartans are and are not. A lot of these things irked many people, I’m sure, and many of these off-the-cuff observations were prevalent throughout most of their season.

  • Game 1 vs. the USF Bulls: The Spartan’s first quarter of the first game of the season was pretty amazing. It was a small glimmer of what the program could be. That teeny sparkle of hope was even a glimpse of the Spartan heydays of Coach Elway & Coach Gilbert for me (or Coach McIntyre for others). It was energy, enthusiasm and belief encapsulated into one quarter from an entire season. BUT after the tide rolled out, you’re left with the talent and instincts of your players and the smarts and scheming of your coaching staff that all fell way short on the national stage. But this was more expected than not against USF.
  • Game 6 vs. UNLV: In the middle of their first defensive sequence of the first quarter, the Spartan defense was in a weird, collective mental fog. Coach Brennan called time out and came out a gave a fiery pep talk on the field. For the remainder of the first quarter, the Spartan D was alive and flying around the field, but the Coach Brennan fire drug wore off and 500 yards of offense rolled over them.
  • The quarterback carousel in the earlier part of the season definitely wasn’t the best thing for the Spartans. From Montel Aaron to Josh Love to Sam Allen to Michael Carrillo, these are all very different QBs to switch between. It’s not that there’s nothing to work with. It was more that the scheming, approach and options should be much more transitionable to cater to the strengths and tendencies of each of them. Not saying it needs to go from pro-style to a triple option per-say, but to have a non-running QB on a naked run or a QB only really effective in a short passing game or a QB less effective in a short passing game or...you get the picture. Basically, the play-calling was very vanilla and seemingly blindly called without regard of the particular QB in the game.
  • The team concept and culture Brennan is selling seems genuine and authentic, but is it taking? Yes, but is it really percolating down to the bottom? No, not completely..yet. The examples are many, but in short, touchdown celebrations when you’re being blown out and penalties on touchdown celebrations before the TD actually happens and penalties from frustration or plain lack of judgement speaks volumes in many ways. It’s bush league.
  • The up-tempo offensive style attempt was a big “no”. The offense wasn’t coordinated enough to consistently jump from play to play, let alone execute it cleanly - motion-penalties, inaccurate passing, players not being set, out-of-sync routes, no running game consistency, etc. Plus, this wasn’t doing the defense any favors at all.
  • DBs looking into the backfield too much. Everyone knew the Spartan defense was going to get a extra dose of running attacks, because when it rains it pours. The defensive backfield wanting to nobly do its part, were often caught trying to help run-stop and fell prey to passing attacks. Basically, the core of this issue is the defensive line. It did look like some 4-2-5 variation coming into play at times that’s supposed to be more ideal to stop the run, but even that wasn’t working.
  • Trick plays aren’t supposed to be obvious. There’s an art to setting them up and executing them even before the trick play is attempted. Don’t try them until your offensive scheme is more established to the other team.

A picture is developing here and it hinges on the coaching, scheming, preparation and teaching.

WHAT’S RIGHT?

OK, the hard part is out the way.

  • Enthusiasm and blind energy. Even with the losses at the end of games, Coach Brennan was supportive and remained steadfast behind his players. After many observations, Coach Brennan seems genuine and unpretentious and he has the makings of a great coach. He’s an unsung, intangible value for players and recruits to know they are in a positive environment even through rough times.
  • Looking at the staff’s recruiting class, it looks as if they are doing what they said in looking for size and strength and blue-collar, hard-working talent (especially the Polynesian warrior blood infusion:). Their incoming recruiting class will serve as one key area to base the program’s turnaround.
  • Special teams was great, especially, the kicking game and return coverage was good.
  • Frank Ginda. He led the nation with 174 tackles and was third in the nation in solo tackles and the linebacking crew was solid and admirable...and overworked. The defense overall looks to have new blood coming into 2018 that looks good, so this component of the Spartan game should still be fine.

WHAT DO THE SPARTANS NEED TO DO?

Most would say it all starts with the defense and yes, I agree, but there is an offensive component that inversely effects it.

OFFENSE: Looking at what Coach Brennan has said in the past, who their leading rusher was, who they’ve picked up in the recruiting class, especially on the O-line - the Spartans should establish their identity with an Inside running game in either or both power & counter running. It really seems the Spartans want and need a grittier identity of jabs, punches and body blows that only comes from the inside running game. So much can be predicated off a successful inside running game. Get this inside game to work, then let Brennan’s new OC, Kevin McGiven, dress it up with all the options....and trick plays;)

DEFENSE: It’s clear the defensive line really needed help. In 2016, teams were averaging 5 yards on first down and in 2017, it was worst (ok, I’ve been mentioning stats:). It would be a complete victory if DC Derrick Odum could at least bring his defense up to par in 2018. There should also be no doubt he could assess and work with the secondary, since that is his forte’. Assuming his recruiting skills and DB background, if he has the DBs he needs and trusts to be alone on an island - he can start to get creative up front and in the middle - and vice versa.

At the most fundamental level, Odum’s defense has to be sound and fit enough to play their base defense; and smart and athletic enough to recognize and exchange gaps and responsibilities on-the-fly, as so many teams knew they could stretch run on them for days.

WHAT’S NEXT?

In 2018, it really comes down to Coach Brennan and his staff and their system & scheme and how fast they can read and adjust what’s coming at them. Many times in games they seemed lost and overwhelmed with what was coming at them and how to react. Yes, much of it was the greater physicality and athleticism on the other side, but equally, it can come down to how well you really know your players and if you can anticipate and adjust your player personnel in any given situation, whether in pre-game or in real-time.

WHAT’S THE PREDICTION?

Many in the new recruiting class will come into play almost immediately, since again, this incoming class will have the first major imprint of the Coach Brennan era. It might sound desperate and drastic, but there’s a long precedent of freshman CFB contributors.

The optimistic side says they can clearly do what Fresno State did with Tedford’s first year and perhaps maybe a dynamic Spartan QB like Terrell Carter can do as the Bulldog’s did with Marcus McMaryion.

The realist side says they’ll grab third place on their side of the conference, because they should have beaten Hawaii and Nevada. And on paper, UNLV & BYU should have been even matches and technically winnable - though every new season can expect a completely different outcome with each team.

Overall, the vibe is the Spartans will be a surprise and Spring practices are right around the corner!

Good luck and Go Spartans!