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Spartans’ heartbreaking loss to Wolf Pack

Two too many mistakes doom Spartans  

Photo by Darryl Oumi

Reminiscent to 2019, Wolf Pack kicker Brandon Talton hit a 45-yard field goal with seven seconds left to lift Nevada (7-2, 5-0 MW) to a 27-24 victory in an especially physical match.

It was a game that wasn’t supposed to be this close for San Jose State (5-5, 2-4 MW) who were anywhere from 10 to 14 point underdogs.

Led again by a spirited Spartan defense, San Jose State kept a prolific Nevada offense on the ropes most of the game, but the Pack’s all-conference QB Carson Strong kept it together enough late in the fourth quarter to finally score their first offensive touchdown and to setup the game winning kick.

“It was a big-time football team,” said Spartan head coach Brent Brennan. “When you’re playing a team like that, mistakes are costly and significant. I thought our defense was again lights out and I thought our offense found some action when we needed it.”

Two critical turnovers technically sealed the deal in a hard-fought loss

Of the three Spartan turnovers, two were returned for touchdowns:

  • Spartan running back Tyler Nevens coughed up the first turnover in the first quarter to Wolf Pack linebacker Daiyan Henley putting Nevada up 7-0. Nevens finished strong with 116 yards rushing on 14 carries.
  • The second half opened with a promising drive of Nevens’ runs until Spartan QB Nick Nash, sharing lesser time with the return of Nick Starkel, was intercepted at the Nevada 15. Wolf Pack cornerback Berdale Robbins’ 86-yard pick six was an easy-found gift.

Five missed fields goals: three by Talton and two by Spartan Matt Mercurio also added to the roller coaster game.

The return of Nick Starkel

“I hate losing,” said Starkel in his first comment from returning to the field. “It doesn’t feel good no matter how you put it, especially in games like that. We play meaningful games like that in November and that was a meaningful game, and it just hurts.”

Since being injured in late September, Starkel was in alternate series with Nash until taking over for most of the second half. Starkel was 21/40, 255 yards passing, three TDs and one interception.

“I was ready. I got some reps in practice this week and I was ready to go,” said Starkel. “I knew I was going to get a couple of series. I didn’t know how it was going to look. I think I was a little jittery in the first drive or two, then I settled in.”

Starkel tossed one TD each to Malikhi Miller, Nevens and to Derrick Deese Jr. late in the fourth quarter to help tie the game. Junior wideout Jermaine Braddock also had a career day with seven receptions and 140 yards in finally flashing more of the receiver potential the Spartans have.

“This week was a big when the coaches told me that this would be a big game for me,” said Braddock. “I knew that I could explode and I kind of expected it with every opportunity and I took advantage of it.”

It’s also clear the vision and big arm potential from Starkel has been one key missing ingredient in the tough losses this year.

Starkel offered color on his one interception, “They baited me into that. They started by pressing the corner on the outside and then backed off at the last second and I thought they were going to cover four - then the last second that safety came right back down and he just read my eyes so when I went left and back right, he followed me and made a good play. I know I’m going to watch that on film and kick myself in the tail for that one, because I know there was also another guy open on that play.”

A Spartan defense that shows the blueprint how to beat great offenses

Though turnovers and a key roughing the passer penalty offered enough life for the Nevada offense to stay in the game, the Spartan defense more than held its own, as they’ve done all year.

A linebacker possessed; Spartan Kyle Harmon led all tacklers with 14 (12 solo). Harmon’s tallied 104 for the year and leads the conference.

“I have a process and preparation I go through every week in the off-season, the summer and going into the season,” said Harmon when asked if he’s met his goals for the year. “So, I stick to my scripts, and I trust my process. My goal is to be healthy and ready when I step on the field and that I’m 100% and I know what I’m doing and I’m locked in. That’s all that’s important to me. It’s not about stats – none of that matters to me.”

A swarming, aggressive and intelligent Spartan defense has given big offenses fits this year. It was a defense that clearly frustrated Strong both physically and mentally.

Though Strong showed his fortitude in the win, the Spartan defense held Strong to only a 24.6 QB rating (314 yards passing on 36/54, one TD pass and two interceptions).

Where the season goes from here

In a season marked by untimely penalties, critical turnovers and dropped balls, it has tipped the balance to a par season where minimally, the Spartans should easily be 7-3.

Brennan irksomely adds, “Those plus territory opportunities whether it’s after Jordan Cobb’s interception or after we get a fourth down stop that needs to result in points and that’s really frustrating but that’s also a really good football team in Nevada.”

Turnovers and penalties show how delicate a game’s balance can be in terms of time, momentum and chances that are taken away. The Spartans absolutely had their chances to win, take a lead and command the game, but we know how the story has gone so far this year.

The Spartans have two more chances for bowl eligibility against two more even better teams than Nevada.