San Jose State’s 37-31 win over New Mexico State saw two driving, churning offenses led by two opposing dual-threat quarterbacks.
The 15,804 in attendance at CEFCU also witnessed Spartan junior Nick Nash in his first QB start filling in for the injured Nick Starkel.
Nash’s performance was highly efficient. Throwing for three touchdowns on 14 of 17 attempts and 195 yards passing, Nash also had 25 yards on the ground to help keep the Aggie defense honest with a run-threat dimension only he could add.
Aggie QB Johah Johnson flashed his inner Russell Wilson (of the Seattle Seahawks) that stretched the Spartan defense throughout the game. Johnson threw for three touchdowns on 33 of 44 passes and 300 passing yards, along with 24 yards on the ground.
“Johnson’s definitely a dual-threat quarterback we talked about all week,” said Spartan linebacker Kyle Harmon who finished the game with 10 tackles. “In my opinion, some of the calls where I was spying the QB, it was my fault for being out of position because I was caught up in the flow of the game, where I was trying to reroute some of those short crosses and clearly my job was to clamp on the quarterback. So I gotta do a better job.”
Though Harmon continued to be tough on himself, clearly the Spartan defense “bend don’t break” mentality held up through some untimely penalties and outstanding athletic QB play from Johnson that kept the score close.
Overall, the outcome greatly belied the expected –26 point spread favoring the Spartans, though the over/under far exceeded 50+ points.
The continuance of Nick Nash
We’ve seen Nick Nash do many things for the Spartans as a receiver and especially, quarterback - enough to pull out an early comparison to a then budding college QB Colin Kaepernick.
Nash’s first offensive series was a quick three-and-out for the Spartans, but a Nash 7-yard run in that first series showed the Aggie defense would could come at any time.
In SJS’ second series, Nash went three-for-three passing while driving the Spartans on an 11-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a Tyler Nevens 3-yard run into the end zone.
Nevens power running was the perfect one-two punch with Nash.
Nevens’ physical 115 yards on 22 carries was the meat and potatoes of the Spartans’ 402 yards of total offense.
“It depends on who we’re playing in terms of what they’re giving you,” said Spartan head coach Brent Brennan on the idea of a balanced offensive attack. “If we can be balanced, I think that’s a good thing, because it forces people to play you a little bit more honest and they can’t really overload some things.”
Brennan continued, “I thought our offensive line also did a good job blocking some of the pressures and the movement the Aggies were bringing, because what it ends up being is a very heavy box that you’re running into.”
Brennan added with the running physicality of Nevens and Kairee Robinson, the run game was able to take shape. With 209 combined rushing yards on the ground, it was only the fourth time a Brennan-era team broke the 200+ rush yard barrier.
Nash also honed in on TE Derrick Deese Jr. finding Deese seven times for 130 yards and a 12-yard touchdown pass immediately after a Nehemiah Shelton interception. Nash’s strength and accuracy were on full display with deep corner and seam routes often into tight coverage on Deese.
The Spartan defense holds
“It was awesome. We’ve been talking about that a lot with Nehemiah,” said Brennan on Shelton’s and the Spartan’s first interception of the year. “It’s been awhile since he’s got his hands on the football. I think it was last year against New Mexico (Lobos). In practices, he’s also getting his hands on the football a lot and we’ve had a lotta of tips and fumbles we could’ve gotten in games and it’s just frustrating, but to finally get one for him when he jumped that route, it was awesome.”
Shelton’s timely interception was that crucial shift in the game that led to a 10-point lead going into half-time.
Along with Harmon, Shelton also had a game high 10 tackles in a Spartan defense that has remained driven and consistent throughout the season. Shelton’s play so far is surely in line for some all-conference honors.
As for another first, DE Cade Hall corralled his first sack of the season in the third quarter. Hall, Junior Fehoko and the entire defensive front by committee also remain a consistent mainstay.
Work in progress
“We are still a work in progress,” Brennan explained on the areas of improving on turnover margin, the running game and on less penalties. “I guess you could say we are still very much like a Silicon Valley startup.”
Brennan describes a big key to the negative plays being how the team or the player responds, such as running back Shamar Garrett’s fumble on a swing pass later followed by a Garrett rushing touchdown.
Each play and each series are the microcosms of the game that make the collective. The Spartans need to keep that micro-focus within the big picture for a chance to repeat as conference champions.
“This is a much bigger mountain for us to climb,” said Brennan on repeating as Mountain West champions. “We didn’t have to go to Penn State or Central Michigan last year and everyone this year is taking their best shot, so our mountain is twice as high this year.”
The 3-2 Spartans next face 1-3 Colorado State in Fort Collins. As we’ve seen much already this season, records don’t mean as much in Mountain West world of closer football parity.