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SJS Spartans game 3 preview: Face-off with the Aztecs

A 9 ½ point underdog with teeth

San Jose Spartan WR Isaiah Hamilton’s (82) 41-yard circus catch against safety Tariq Thompson; San Diego State at CEFCU Stadium, October 19, 2019.
San Jose State WR Isaiah Hamilton’s (82) 41-yard circus catch against San Diego State safety Tariq Thompson - CEFCU Stadium, October 19, 2019.
photo by: Vic Aquino

San Jose State vs. San Diego State

Location: Carson, CA (Dignity Health Sports Complex)

Date/Time: Friday, November 6th at 6:00 pm (PST)

Television: CBS Sports Network

Radio play-by-play: KNEW (960 AM)

Head-to-head series:

The all-time record favors the Spartans 22-19-2 over San Diego State in a series that goes back 85 years.

The more relevant record is from the last seven years with the inception of the Mountain West. The Aztecs won the last seven games by a combined score of 239-84.

In that time, the closest San Jose State came to beating the Aztecs was in 2018 when the Spartans finished 1-11. It was a 16-13 loss, where sheer will from the Spartans almost won it.

Inside the obvious things to look for

1. Another perfect storm

Last week, we contrasted the susceptibility of New Mexico’s secondary vs. the proven firepower of the Spartan pass game. Recent history and stats made it relatively easy to anticipate the fireworks San Jose State displayed on New Mexico.

In Friday’s matchup with the Aztecs, beyond all the incredible stats by both teams, let’s call it “an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object.” But, who’s who and what happens in a battle of high-powered forces?

The Spartans absolutely need 60 minutes of unwavering, dogged persistence through all the ups-and-downs. Staying on the positive side of the intangibles will favor San Jose State.

Though the visiting Spartans are 9 ½ point underdogs, the SJS defense has controlled the run against a heavy Air Force option running team and kept a New Mexico running quarterback in check.

But San Diego State’s run game is its own beast (which includes a massive offensive line). It’s a run lineage as strong as ever with four high-caliber backs led by Chance Bell, Greg Bell, Jordan Byrd and Kaegun Williams. There’s NFL running back potential among them.

The Spartan defense must obviously slow and hold the Aztecs below their crazy run game averages. Keeping them notably below their 7 yards per carry and 347 yards per game average will start to sow doubt, thus a victory path starts to emerge for SJS.

Once or if you see San Diego State mix in more of an air attack than usual, the chess game starts. Currently, the Aztecs run play ratio is 2-to-1 over the pass.

If the Spartan defense bends, holds and sustains against one of the premier running teams in the nation, that path to a win starts to clear. If the San Jose defense is not consistent, it’s a longer night, of course.

Then, there’s the other unstoppable force.

2. Offense their best defense

The Aztec’s stellar defense basically continues from last season. There’s no drop-off from Rocky Long to new head coach Brady Hoke, who worked with Long 10 years ago with the Aztecs. After Hoke’s short NFL stint, he returned last season to architect the Aztec defense you see today.

That defense allowed an average of 200 yards total offense against each UNLV and Utah State over the last two weeks. The Rebels and Aggies scored only six points and seven points, respectively.

San Diego State’s secondary also plays a big part led by returning safeties Tariq Thompson and Dwayne Johnson Jr. The secondary led the MWC with 18 interceptions in 2019 and have two interceptions this season, so far.

This is where Spartan QB Nick Starkel and his receivers Tre Walker, Bailey Gaither, Isaiah Hamilton and Jermaine Braddock come in. Any offensive performance between or above the last two games on a stout Aztec defense goes further down a win path.

As expected, the Spartan run game will come into question. In that close 2018 loss to the Aztecs, San Jose managed 62 yards on 34 carries. In 2019, the 27-17 loss to the Aztecs saw 54 Spartan rushing yards.

In Friday’s game, the Spartans need at least an operable run game similar to last week when Tyler Nevens, Kairee Robinson, Isaiah Holiness, Shamar Garrett and QB Nick Nash each averaged 3+ yards a carry and a collective 98 rushing yards.

All said, you can see and feel a level of confidence growing with this running committee. If this wild card finds more life Friday, the Spartan’s chances go well-above 50% towards a win, assuming all the above.

3. Other intangibles

  • Dignity Health Sports Complex (DHSC) is technically an away game for both teams. It’s an hour flight for both teams (or a two-hour bus ride from San Diego). It’s a great complex similar in dynamics to Avaya stadium in San Jose. DHSC is basically a neutral site.
  • No one wants untimely, undisciplined penalties and unforced errors, especially coming out of timeouts or right out from halftime. A mature team gets past that to avoid those shots to the foot.
  • An enforcer like safety Jay Lenard would be ideal against the Aztecs. Lenard didn’t play last week and it’s unknown of his availability this week.
  • First-year Spartan offensive line coach Josh Oglesby’s O-line has done a great job on pass protection and a good job run blocking. Stopping a more formidable Aztec pass rush is a given, but more synergy with the Spartan backs can be a prelude to a breakout run game that also offsets that pass rush.
  • Head coach Brent Brennan often touts “focus, refocus and play the next play.” Big games like this more often come down to mental discipline and execution. Team leaders are a big part of that, as they have double duty to lead as well.

Game outlook – Spartans can pull one out if...

The stars don’t have to be perfectly aligned to pull out a win. The big stars just have to continue to be effective and the rest have to stay well-enough in a positive direction.

If the Spartan offense shows up on a tough Aztec defense - and the Spartan defense knocks off about a 1/3 of the Aztec running game - and the Spartan run game is operable - and the overall kicking game is steady as it is - you have a win that lets on board a few more believers.

A win means the program is finally starting to hit its stride. Even with a close loss, the least expectation is to be the most competitive Spartan team to face the Aztecs over the last seven years. But the best chance to win is now.

Follow @vicaquino on Twitter for more free analysis and color commentary on the San Jose State Spartans.