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San Jose State football: Spartans shock the Aztecs to go 3-0 for the first time since the Jack Elway era

With Starkel knocked out of the game early on, Nick Nash grows up before our eyes

NCAA Football: San Jose State at San Diego State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

San Jose State Spartan football stunned San Diego State 28-17 to remain unbeaten. The Spartans are 3-0 for the first time since the days of Spartan head coach Jack Elway nearly four decades ago.

Shockwaves from the win were heightened after losing to the Aztecs seven straight years. Breaking through with such a gritty team performance when things looked dire-and-bleak, turned into a mini-Cinderella special playing on CBS Sports Friday night.

Knocked out, but not

After the Aztec defense knocked the Mountain West offensive player-of-the-week, Nick Starkel, out of the game on the Spartan’s first series, the mood and complexion of the game immediately dropped, along with SJS’ chances.

Things remained doom-and-gloom with five straight three-and-outs under back-up sophomore QB Nick Nash.

Nash finally settled in on the last series of the first-half with an 11-play scoring drive capped by a four-yard slant to tight-end Derrick Deese Jr. in the end zone - closing the gap to 10-7 at half-time.

“I was adjusting to the game plan,” Nash explained on ramping up his play. “It was a bit of nerves too, but the whole team had my back and picked me up. So, I had to do it for them.”

At the foundation of the win was the Spartan defense, which can now be considered the real deal to all comers. They neutralized the Aztecs biggest strength.

Holding the Aztecs to just 101 rushing yards, less than one-third of their normal output was shocking, considering the Spartans rushed for 116 yards.

Every time the Aztecs tried to impose their game and the more passing attack they had to use to mix things up equally opened up the Spartan defense to their entire skillset. The Spartan defense holding the fort down also gave Nash the time he needed to adjust.

“What an incredible job he did,” said head coach Brent Brennan on Nash. “Here he is now going against one of the best defenses in the country and he just kept playing, didn’t get discouraged even after the interception, so all credit to him.”

Even out of the game, Starkel made his presence felt by assisting young Nash with perspective and defensive insight.

Once Nash literally grew up before our eyes, Spartan nation saw they have two bonafide quarterbacks. It may likely be a taste of what can continue next season with Nash, who went 16-25 with two TD passes and 169 passing yards.

With Nash making the most of his playing time, he added a consistent run dimension the Aztecs had to re-adjust to. With Nash chipping in 53 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown, it allowed for some play-calling adjustments by OC Kevin McGiven that were almost 49ers Shanahan-like.

The ability to dial up more facets and more offensive range became clearer and clearer. The RPO and run game, mid-range passing game to Deese and the backs, decoying of receivers Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither put the McGiven nuances on display.

At the end of the night when the range of weaponry was put away, you had Deese with five receptions, 69 yards and a touchdown; Walker with 70 yards on five receptions and Bailey Gaither with 20 yards on three catches and a three-yard TD catch.

With Nash in, the Spartan run game most everyone has questioned over and over for years effectively grinded on the Aztecs. Overall, it was almost the perfect balance and synergy of a pass and run game to keep the Aztec defense off balance.

Running back Tyler Nevens 44 yards rushing and one rushing TD on nine carries belies the timely power running he exuded. Nevens big runs in the fourth quarter basically helped ice the game. Along with fellow back Kairee Robinson’s timely 20 yards on the ground, the run game averaged four yards a carry. That’s doing your part in the bigger picture.

The defensive canvas

In that picture, the canvas is the Spartan defense. With linebacker Kyle Harmon leading with 14 tackles, it was a group performance that’s worthy of national attention. To stop the leading rushing attack in the nation is a big thing, but it’s the unique little things that showed the most too.

In the first series of the second half, the Aztecs tried to catch the Spartans sleeping on a 4th and 1 at the San Jose 20 by immediately coming to the line and quick snapping it. Aztec QB Carson Baker’s sneak attempt was thwarted by safety Tre Jenkins and lineman EJ Ane, as the Spartan defense readied itself on a dime.

Jenkins also forced a fumble from Baker to what looked like an incomplete pass. Defensive end Junior Fehoko never gave up on it and recognized it as free ball and recovered the fumble.

Jenkins continued to make his presence felt with a drive-killing interception in the end zone, when the Spartans forced three Aztec turnovers in the fourth quarter.

The balance across the defense was anchored by the on-going stellar-play of the line. With the likes of Cade Hall, Jay Kakiva, Lando Grey and Fehoko making tackles up front and stuffing the line, it allowed the secondary and backs to fill the run and make plays.

In what many are already calling another signature win for Brennan, this win is most meaningful. It clearly shows the winning potential is finally real and can next catch up to the culture of the program.

It rings the bell that the Spartans are to be reckoned with. And it shows everything a football team should do on and off the field.

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