San Jose State vs. Air Force
Location: San Jose, CA (CEFCU Stadium)
Date/Time: Saturday, October 24th at 7:30 pm (PST)
Television: Fox Sports 1 (FS1)
Radio play-by-play: KDOW (1220 AM, 96.3 FM), KSJS (90.5FM) – for South SF Bay area
Head-to-head series: The Falcons lead the overall series 4-1 over the Spartans. The last and only time the Spartans defeated Air Force (25-22) was 23 years ago at the then-called Spartan Stadium when both teams were part of the Western Athletic Conference.
Besides a competitive 41-38 loss in 2016, it’s been all Air Force in blowout wins. But in their sixth meeting with the Falcons, expectations for the Spartans might be the highest they’ve ever been.
Regardless of a seemingly short runway to prepare, head coach Brent Brennan has run a tight ship, though compartmentalized for most of 2020. The team has been under strict Covid protocols with zero infections to report. Their nearly two-weeks in seclusion 300 miles away from campus brought about a more intense and focused training camp. And in year-four of the Brennan era, even in such a historical year, the confidence-level is palpable.
Three things to look for
1. The Falcons offensive line is/was among the top-20 O-line’s in the nation
The Air Force offensive line is top-shelf and a key foundation, but without All-American and NFL prospect guard, Nolan Laufenberg, they’re one notable notch less, though the triple option philosophy helps minimize that loss.
Laufenberg will not make the trip to San Jose after being exposed to a Covid-infected cadet (Laufenberg is not reported to have been infected and is following isolation protocols). The Air Force O-line is still formidable with four other starting seniors and other experienced upperclassmen ready to fill in for Laufenberg.
Against Navy in a dominating 40-7 win three weeks ago, the Falcons surprisingly stuck to a more standard running game emphasizing quick counters and traps between the tackles and QB keepers without much or any RPO reads.
Against the Spartans, the Falcons will certainly keep them off balance with the threat of any creative option flavor to offset any over-eagerness from the SJS defense.
Also, in their Air Force loss last season at Falcon Stadium, the Spartans gave up 382 rushing yards of 513 total yards to the Falcons, which was a season high for Air Force.
SJS defensive coordinator, Derrick Odum, obviously knows what’s coming. He’ll surely have multiple schemes locked in and the creative and real-time chops to adjust.
The major key to success will be the execution and quick decision making of every defender tackling their responsibility, whether or not the offensive person has the ball.
The next obvious key: the Spartans cannot miss tackles OR any individual assignments. If they do that for most of the game, there might be a chance.
2. The Spartan running game, the Spartan running game, the Spartan running game
People are impatiently waiting for this one and the time is now.
It’s no surprise, San Jose State has shown they cannot effectively and consistently run. Even with 11 rushing TDs last season by now-departed DeJon Packer, the Spartans were among the bottom 10% in the FBS the last three seasons.
If some run game doesn’t emerge, a QB-led attack served up by the two Nicks - Nick Starkel and Nick Nash - will look to their coveted receiving corp.
Either way, you can bet the Spartan receivers, Tre Walker, Bailey Gaither and Isiah Hamilton, will have their numbers called often.
With Nash as a run threat, it’s a good bet too OC Kevin McGiven will utilize Nash to open things up, especially if the run game struggles. To extend some semblance of a run game if the traditional method flails, SJS will certainly dial up backs in the flats, screens and sweeps.
Now, if someone from the running back committee emerges and establishes a real run game, expect sophomore Kairee Robinson, senior Tyler Nevens, sophomore Isaiah Holiness or freshman Shamar Garrett, respectively.
If these guys break at least 125 yards on the ground, individually or collectively, then that’s the next chance the Spartans have to upset the Falcons. Keep in mind, Air Force held Navy to 2.5 yards a carry and 90 total yards rushing three weeks ago.
3. Nick the QB
SJS’ QB depth chart slots two Nicks at the top and not surprising, Brennan is not flipping the cards over to which Nick it will be, but the bet is on the former SEC Nick to handle the majority of the snaps.
So much of the Spartan offense last year was predicated on the play of QB Josh Love. Upholding some level of that QB pedigree will be on full display on opening day.
If that Spartan QB is a fluid field general who controls and manages the game with good command; that will be the first comforting sign SJS can be OK on offense; not just for this Saturday’s opener but for the season.
If that Spartan QB also shows the whip, accuracy, decisiveness and courage as Love once displayed; that will be the next, next chance to pull out an opening day win.
Prediction or premonition?
The safe and sure money clearly is on Air Force for good reasons. Falcon head coach Troy Calhoun in his 14th year is a well-proven commodity even with his squad not at full capacity. His record speaks volumes. Also, the 62.2 % FPI (football power index) from ESPN has Air Force comfortably favored to win in San Jose.
With about everyone expecting a Spartan loss, the aforementioned chances to win are legitimate intangibles:
- San Jose State has shown unwavering discipline this year amid the chaos. That can translate to a disciplined defense that has the wherewithal to trust and stick to their assignments. If they don’t accomplish this at an acceptable level, Air Force will dominate again.
- The down years of the run game can’t stay that way forever…at least statistically. These backs definitely don’t want to be part of that trend, even with an offensive line that is not as deep as last season. You have backs that offer power and mostly speed, both collectively and individually. The pressure is on for the run game to help keep Air Force off the field.
- Finally, if the QB shows up who we all think can show up, there you have three chances that can align to bring down the Falcons for another harbinger Spartan win.
Yes, there’s nothing measurable in intangibles, but it’s enough to say “that’s why you play the game.”