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San Jose State vs. Boise State Take Two: MWC Championship Edition

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How good is San Jose State? Are they destined to win the Mountain West?

NCAA Football: Mountain West Championship-Hawaii at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

SAN JOSE STATE VS. BOISE STATE

Location: Las Vegas, Nevada (Sam Boyd Stadium)

Date/Time: Saturday, December 19 at 2:40 p.m. (Mountain Time)

Television: FOX

Head-to-Head: Boise State leads the all-time series with 14 wins against zero losses. The series goes all the way back to 1978, and Broncos have never lost to San Jose State. The closest game in the series was a 23 – 20 Bronco win in 2006. The largest margin of victory for Boise State was a 77 – 14 blowout in 2003.

Betting Line: Boise State is a 6.5-point favorite with the over/under at 52.5 points. The betting markets suggest an outcome of Boise State 30, San Jose State 23.

A Deep Dive into the San Jose State Spartans:

Four weeks ago, we looked at how Boise State and San Jose State matched up with each other. The two Mountain West title contenders were scheduled to play in Boise on November 28th. Since we rarely get nice things in 2020, that game was canceled.

As fate would have it, both squads remained undefeated in conference play and will finally face off this Saturday in Las Vegas. Not a lot has changed since the previous preview was written so instead of rewriting the same article with slight updates, let’s take a deep dive into how San Jose State has managed to run the table in the Mountain West.

Stereotypically there are two types of sports fans. You’ve got your stat-heads and your eye test guys. Let’s start with the cold hard stats and then wax poetic about the sweet science we’ve seen on our television screens.

On paper San Jose State is an above average team. They are 34th in the country in yards per game (72nd in rushing and 29th in passing) and 49th in points per game. On defense they are also 34th in yards allowed (26th in rushing and 46th in passing efficiency defense) and 13th in scoring defense.

The Spartans are balanced on offense. They rush for 158 yards per game and pass for 276 yards per game. Same for their defense where they allow 128 rushing yards per game and 228 passing yards per game. They are solid all around and are clearly well coached. Nothing in the raw stats stand out as particularly fantastic or a glaring deficiency. We must go deeper.

When the raw stats aren’t telling the story, you must join the nerds in the scary world of advanced stats. The point of advanced stats is to tell you the real story, regardless of what your lying eyes are relaying to your brain. The eye test guys hate advanced stats. Let’s look at them anyway.

Specifically, let’s look at ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings. The SP+ model tells us a couple of things that the raw stats don’t. First, it measures how well a team performed relative to the level of competition. Second, it doesn’t give credit or assign blame for stats compiled during “garbage time” in blowouts.

This model ranks San Jose State 57th in the country (BSU is 33rd and San Diego State is 54th). Accounting for schedule, the Spartans rank a respectable 43rd on offense, a below average 76th on defense, and a putrid 89th on special teams. The SP+ model isn’t kind to San Jose State, but they are undefeated, nonetheless. How are they doing it?

For one, the Spartans are legitimately a better team than the opponents they’ve played so far (except for maybe San Diego State). Second, they are well-coached and seem to be great at making halftime adjustments.

The coaching and halftime adjustment point can be highlighted by an amazing stat that fellow Mountain West Connection writer Zach Ballard alerted me to: San Jose State is +5 in scoring margin in the first half of their games and +61 in the second half. As the eye test guys would say, the Spartans are a second half team. This is a cause for concern for Bronco fans as Boise State is +96 in the first half a -8 in the second half.

On to the eye test. What does that exam tell us? It tells us that the Spartans have been lucky throughout the 2020 season (on the field). Maybe lucky isn’t the right word, maybe they are the MWC team of destiny for 2020? Let’s dive into a few of their games and see what the narrative tells us.

San Jose State vs Air Force:

For Boise State aficionados, this is the most impressive game that the Spartans have played the whole season. Apparently, you are allowed to shut down the triple option offense. Who knew? San Jose State’s defense was dominate in the game, holding the Falcons to 206 rushing yards on 41 carries and recovering two fumbles.

The Spartans needed that dominance because they weren’t great on offense. Air Force finished the game with more total yards, were better on 3rd and 4th downs, and were penalized less than the Spartans. It didn’t matter, San Jose State won by 11 points to start their undefeated run.

Now for the team of destiny part: with ten minutes remaining in the second quarter Air Force’s Elisha Palm intercepted Nick Starkel and returned it to the Falcons 11-yard line. With the game tied at 0-0, Air Force embarked on one of their trademarked soul-crushing drives. In total, the drive lasted for 17 plays and covered 87 yards. It ended at the San Jose State two-yard line. The Falcons ran the ball four times from the Spartans three-yard line and netted one yard. If you replay that sequence 100 times the Falcons score 99 touchdowns and the whole game changes. Team of destiny, see?

San Jose State vs San Diego State:

The Spartans traveled to San Diego for their third game of the season and left with an impressive 28 – 17 victory. San Jose State joins BYU as the teams that put up the most points against an elite San Diego State defense. Like with the Air Force game, the Spartans gave up more yards than they gained. Like with the Air Force game, they were the recipients of a fortuitus sequence of events.

In this game, the destined stretch of plays started with 12 minutes left in the game. San Diego State was leading 17 – 14 and had the ball at their own 38. They promptly fumbled the ball and the Spartans returned it to the 17-yard line. San Jose State took advantage of the short field and scored a touchdown. San Diego State, now trailing 21 – 17, started their next drive on the 38-yard line again (they should avoid that yard line). They drove the ball as far as the Spartans 11 and, again, turned the ball over. Hats off to the Spartans for incredible execution under pressure. Good preparation leads to good fortune. Destiny.

San Jose State vs Nevada

Last week the Spartans played a “home” game in Nevada against a 6-1 Wolfpack team. The game was filled with big plays, marred by questionable officiating, and was all-around an entertaining spectacle. San Jose State showed off an improved offense, passing for over 300 yards and rushing for 200 yards. The Spartans defense held Nevada to their lowest point total of the year, as well. The game also included a stretch where the game turned on its head.

Trailing 20 – 7 with seven minutes left in the first half, the Spartans were forced to punt. Nevada put together a 14-play 79-yard drive and lined up for a 25-yard field goal to take a 17-point lead into the locker room. They missed it, and then the team of destiny struck. San Jose State housed the kickoff to open the second half and recovered a Nevada “fumble” at their own one-yard line. That sequence crushed the Wolfpack’s spirits and they never threatened in the game again.

Prediction:

It might sound like I am disregarding San Jose State as overrated and that they’ve just gotten lucky. I am not. On paper and on an Excel spreadsheet, Boise State looks like the heavy favorite. Games aren’t played on paper, though. The narrative, the journey, and the eye-test do matter. There is something to be said for a team that believes in themselves, believes in their coaches, and believes in their program.

San Jose State has done everything right. They have turned a perennial bottom-feeder program into a team that has earned the right to play in the Mountain West Championship game. They believe they are going win the game, too. They believe they are going to make huge plays in key moments, and to this point they have been rewarded for that belief.

My head tells me that Boise State should be an 11-point favorite. That was the line for the first scheduled game and not a lot has changed. My heart tells me that the Spartans are dangerous. There is credence in believing you are a team of destiny. All that said, Boise State wins a nail biter. Boise State 32 San Jose State 27