It wasn’t the offensive shootout most were expecting. It wasn’t a blowout. And it wasn’t anywhere close to an Air Force victory that it was supposed to be.
It was...a 17-6 upset over the highly-favored Air Force Falcons.
It was a dueling defensive battle for the first half. It was a dominating second half for the Spartans. And it caused some reverberations in the Mountain West football world.
At first, a 0-0 defensive battle
Former Arkansas Razorback and now Spartan QB Nick Starkel started off slow but settled in going 22-29 for 226 yards and two TD tosses to TE Derrick Deese Jr. Starkel’s play anchored the offensive performance especially when they needed it most in the second half.
“At half-time we emphasized that we needed to be better on 3rd downs after that rough showing in the first-half,” said Starkel. “Our goal was basically to stay on the field and earn ours and help out our defense.”
But the signature series happened toward the end of the 0-0 first half. Three straight defensive stops inches from the goal line topped off by safety Tre Webb sprinting to his left to stop a quick pitch to Air Force back Jordan Gidrey.
“We knew they were going to try and sneak the quarterback in,” said Spartan linebacker Kyle Harmon. “They tried twice then pitched it out and we got ‘em. We saw it on film.”
After dropping what was a sure interception in the first quarter, Harmon was a man-on-a mission the entire game, ending the night with 14 tackles; 8 solo.
Then...a dominating performance
It was a fascinating crescendo of team energy for San Jose State; at least for those few who witnessed it inside CEFCU stadium.
For the entire game the Spartan defense was swarming. The D-line was penetrating consistently enough for the likes of Harmon and safeties Webb and Tre Jenkins to punish the inside runs and track down most of the outside runs.
The Spartan defense basically stunned Air Force into submission. By the fourth quarter, the Falcons had to completely change their identity to a passing team that was woefully inadequate.
Sixth-year senior receiver Bailey Gaither’s speed was also on full display. Gaither’s eight receptions and 110 yards receiving was highlighted by a 52-yard bomb deep into Air Force territory that helped draw first blood in the third quarter - Deese’s first TD reception from Starkel.
San Jose State actually had the game in hand with a few minutes left in the fourth quarter.
After Air Force finally got into the end zone at the beginning of the fourth to make it 14-6 (failing on a 2-point conversion), Starkel managed a 15-play scoring drive that took almost eight minutes off the clock. A Matt Mercurio field goal made it 17-6 with five minutes left in the fourth.
As Starkel got his feet under him in the second half, it became clearer that he could also command the team such as his predecessor Josh Love did last year.
“It’s been crazy. I never thought I’d be starting at three different colleges,” smiled Starkel. “Coach Brennan walked up to me right before the game today and said ‘you’re right where you’re supposed to be’ and I believe that. It’s perfect timing.”
All said, the Spartan defense was the star of the game. Relatively speaking, allowing the vaunted Air Force run game to only 206 yards was a feat. The San Jose State blueprint to stop the triple option anchored in large part to the strong defensive line play that most teams took advantage of in past years.
“I do think we’re just getting more mature and doing a nice job in recruiting,” stated Brennan. “A couple pieces we added on the defensive front make us more stout with Jay Kakiva, Noah Wright and true freshman Soane Toia making some plays tonight too.”
It was a worthy opening night for something long overdue for the Spartans – a strong win over a long-proven, successful team.
Even when things looked a bit shaky in a couple spots that might have turned the momentum, Brennan kept it simple to his players and coaches.
“Let’s chill everybody out and just go win the game.”