The long-awaited opening day of the Mountain West season will see the Falcons travelling to San Jose for a 7:30 pm Pacific time kickoff, assuming that the California governor and local government will allow the game to be played there. The Spartans have been practicing at Humboldt State University, 320 miles north of their campus in San Jose, and have had less than a month to prepare for the season. The Falcons head to California coming off a season opening win against Navy, 40-7, and with three weeks off to prepare for the game.
Last year against the Spartans
The Falcons won last year’s game against the Spartans at Falcon Stadium, 41-24. The Falcons churned out 396 yards on the ground, 214 coming from fullbacks running between the tackles. Donald Hammond had 131 yards passing with one touchdown on 5 completions out of 9 attempts, including 64 and 32 yard completions to Geraud Sanders. The defense gave up 280 yards passing to the quarterback duo of Josh Love and Nick Nash, and 118 yards rushing. The first half of the game was close, but the Falcon defense came up with two big stops in Falcon territory, first on a fourth and five from the Falcon 25 yard line that was broken up by Tre Bugg, and secondly on a third down stop on the Falcon 8 yard line where the Spartans had to settle for a field goal. Overall, it was an impressive win by the Falcons, but several areas of strength were evident which are still under question with this year’s team.
Preview: Falcon’s offense versus San Jose State’s defense
It appeared to me in the Falcon opener against Navy that the Falcon offense was mostly relying on a fairly standard running game, depending on the biggest strength of the team - the offensive line. The triple option was used mostly to provide a play set that Navy had to always anticipate, but was not used that often. There were a lot of fullback traps, counter plays, quarterback keepers, and quick pitches that were executed out of the flexbone formation with no need for the quarterback to read the defense for his decision. The blocking provided the holes that enabled 391 yards of rushing offense. The fullbacks had 225 yards running between the tackles, and all four Falcon rushing touchdowns came on short yardage sneaks and dives by the quarterbacks and fullbacks. The rushing results were similar to last year’s 396 yards against the Spartans.
The Spartan defense retains two good linemen from last year in Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko, but are breaking in two new nose guards recruited from the JUCO ranks. They also lose two of their better linebackers from last year, Ethan Aguayo and Jesse Osuna. The remaining linebackers have some starting experience, but overall, it looks like there could be some falloff in the run defense from last year. I do expect a lot of rushing yardage out of the Air Force offense. With one game under their belts, the Falcons should also perform better on third downs and finishing drives than they did last week against Navy and should have a sizable time of possession advantage.
The big difference for the Falcon offense from last year will likely be the passing game. Donald had a big arm with pretty good accuracy downfield and had speedy and sure-handed receivers in Geraud Sanders and Ben Waters. New quarterback Haaziq Daniels for now does not appear to have that kind of arm, and the Falcons used short to intermediate length passes when they called passing plays against Navy. I will be keeping an eye on tight end Kyle Patterson on play action passes and short routes. Daniel Morris looked pretty good at the wide receiver position, especially as a blocker, but didn’t exhibit a lot of speed. Any deep shots would probably target Brandon Lewis, but the potential to hit two long passes like the Hammond-Sanders combination did in last year’s game is lower.
Preview: Spartan offense versus Falcon defense
The Falcon defense last year against the Spartans was not stellar ... except when it counted. The stops deep in Falcon territory turned the tide against SJSU. With the all-new defense this year, it remains to be seen whether or not the Falcons can make the key play on defense consistently. Against Navy, at least the Falcons were swarming to the ball, and when Navy made mistakes, the Falcons capitalized. When Tyger Goslin made an unforced fumble, Parker Noren pounced on the loose ball. When Goslin forced a pass where he shouldn’t have, Corvan Taylor was in position to make the interception. San Jose State will be making their first start of the year with minimal practice time and a brand new quarterback in Nick Starkel, a graduate transfer from Texas A & M by way of Arkansas. I would expect some mistakes, and hopefully the Falcons can turn them into more possessions.
It’s safe to say that the Falcon front seven exceeded all expectations in the Navy game. 90 yards rushing, a 2.5 yard per attempt average, 3 QB hurries and 3 sacks in 21 dropbacks against a triple option offense is very good, even if Navy appears to be less talented this year. Grant Donaldson, the only returning starter from last year led the defense from his outside linebacker position with 6 tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. George Silvanic, in his first extensive playing action, picked up 7 tackles and 1.5 sacks. True freshman linebacker Alec Mock came into the game after the first few plays and remained on the field until the game was settled. He ended up with 7 tackles and a sack, in the first extensive playing time for a true freshman at Air Force in a long time.
The Falcon philosophy on defense is to 1) stop the run, 2) keep the receivers in front of you, and 3) try for a few big disruptive plays. You can read my earlier analysis here. Last year, the Falcon defenders were fairly successful at disruptive defense against the Spartans, but the Spartans had good offensive success early. Adjustments made by defensive coordinator John Rudzinski after the first couple of drives pretty much shut down the offense until the Falcons took a 41-10 lead in the final quarter. Against Navy, the all-new Falcon secondary made some glaring errors early, resulting in two long pass plays, but again adjustments were made and coverage was much better after that. I am worried about the potential of Starkel, and receivers Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither to provide a dangerous threat to the inexperienced Falcon secondary, and I do expect them to produce a lot of yardage.
In the preseason, one of my areas of concern for the Falcons was who would be replacing Jake Koehnke, who went a perfect 13-13 last year. I probably shouldn’t have worried since the Falcons have hit 87% of their field goal kicks over the last 7 years. Sure enough, along comes Tevye Schuettpelz-Rohl (TSR for short). TSR proceeded to calmly hit a 48 yard field goal on his first career attempt in a huge rivalry game against Navy, and went on to hit 3 more in a row, all of them when the offense was struggling to finish drives. He was the difference maker that got the Falcons over the hump of early season jitters. The new punter, Joe Carlson, had two long kicks and one short field kick inside the 20. It looks as though this unit will be the usual positive producer for the Falcons, especially considering that the Falcons have blocked at least one kick every year under Troy Calhoun.
San Jose State counters with a good kicker of their own, Matt Mercurio, who hit 20 out of 24 attempts last year. They are replacing their punter, kick returner, and punt returner, so those areas are question marks.
I was far off on my prediction of the Navy game, as I predicted the Falcons to lose 31-28, but I look at it this way - I correctly predicted that the Falcons would cover the spread, and I correctly predicted the over at the time I wrote my article, so I’m 2 for 2.
It would seem to me that this game will be closer than last year, but the Falcon offense, and in particular, the offensive line and the lack of preparation on the Spartan squad should provide a victory for the Falcon, 34-24. Early line in Vegas is Air Force -7 and 61 1⁄2 on the total. So, I take Air Force to cover and the under on total score.