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Spartans hang on for a grind-it-out win over Hawaii

What was really behind the 17-13 win over the Rainbow Warriors in Honolulu

SJSU v Hawaii
SJSU safety Jay Lenard (27) drilling Hawaii receiver Nick Mardner (84) in the second half of the Spartan win in Honolulu.
Photo by Darryl Oumi

San Jose State has played Hawaii every year since 1996 (except for 2012) and those games were mostly high scoring affairs, but 2021 was not one of those games.

From Saturday night going into early Sunday morning for us mainlanders, it was obviously not the best offensive showing to stay up late for, especially after just witnessing a great Fresno State win over UCLA.

This Spartans and Rainbow Warriors game could be called a scratch-and-claw, grind-it-out kinda game or perhaps even a battle of ineptness. It was a game that saw 22 punts overall (11 by each team), 17 offensive drives by each team where usually a typical average is dozen for each team, and so many dropped passes on both sides.

It became clear nothing of a shootout was going to happen.

At least for the Spartans, those visions of seeing the end zone early-and-often was lessened after it was announced the team’s top running back, Tyler Nevens, and tight end Sam Olsen were “unavailable.” Tack on that TE Derrick Deese Jr. left the game in the middle of the first half didn’t help as well.

Still, the Spartans certainly earned a 17-13 win that was predicated on great defense and the steadfastness of QB Nick Starkel.

Something else was amiss

Mother nature had a lot to say behind the scenes and Spartan head coach Brent Brennan and Starkel were keenly aware of her.

“The wind was tricky, absolutely tricky,” said Brennan. “I really thought Shamar (Garrett) did a great job fielding all those punts and kicks when the ball gets high up and the wind catches it. That is something you worry about on special teams, and it affected all parts of our game and you can’t really prepare for that.”

After seeing so many missed catches and misreads by the receivers, you also had to wonder if maybe some Mai Tais were added in the Spartan’s Gatorade bucket, as these are great athletes who don’t often drop or misjudge consecutive passes.

“Before the game, yes, there were wind gusts to be concerned about,” said Starkel. “With 21-22 mile an hour winds before the game, I’m just trying to get these receivers out there before the game to get used to it.”

Starkel added, “If I try to throw it inside of the hash, it might land three or four yards outside of the hash because the way the wind can take it. The whole night was a constant battle.”

Starkel started off slow and found a rhythm in the middle of the second quarter. He remained focused and unfazed from all the drops and missed opportunities. The Spartan playmaker threw for 235 yards (23-50 attempts) with one TD toss and an interception.

Spartan defense again

For three games in a row, the Spartan defense has been the consistent guiding force behind their wins and kept them in striking distance for three quarters in their lone loss.

A three-man rush basically helped keep Hawaii’s best rusher in check. ‘Bow QB Chevan Cordeiro took off 10 times for 39 yards gaining most of those yards in the desperation of the final drives of the fourth quarter. To his credit, Cordeiro gave the ‘Bows a chance for a win on the very last play of the game.

“It’s tricky because their quarterback is such a good runner, especially if we flush him out with four down men, or five men or even a six with any kind of pressure,” said Brennan describing DC Derrick Odum’s scheme behind the game. “So, we tried to mix that up with cover disguise and a mixed number of pressures.”

A multitude of defensive players made notable plays under the Odum scheme.

“Coach D.O. has always been able to keep our scheme relatively simple so we can show our talent on any given play,” said linebacker Rico Tolefree.

Tolefree was one of the standout defenders tallying six tackles (five solo) with 1.5 tackles for losses. His physical play helped fill the void left by linebacker Kyle Harmon after being ejected for a questionable spearing penalty on Cordeiro early in the fourth quarter.

“Being on top as the team to beat, that “hate” stays the same,” said Tolefree expressing one of the motivations of the defense. ”It’s great on either side being one of the top teams or not. We love it. We love having a target on our back.”

By the numbers, the Spartans kept Hawaii at bay with an assorted 369 yards of total offense (242 yards in the air and 127 on the ground). Harmon and cornerback Nehemiah Shelton led with nine tackles each.

It was a character win

In these kinds of ugly wins, when there’s more frustration and hard luck, the consistency to keep fighting on every single down is one of the salient qualities most of us can’t see or appreciate.

“Football is hard, and we can’t take anything for granted,” said Starkel. “We definitely know we left a lot out there, so we’re going to get back into that mode and get back into the grind of it this week.”

Starkel’s performance was not one of his best just by the numbers, but the mental process to remain not just calm and focused, but also have the trust and support of teammates on and off the field during the game are part of the other hidden dynamics normal folks don’t see.

“One of the things the coaches know is I play my best when I’m smiling and having fun,” shared Starkel. “And it’s easy to have fun playing football behind that Spartan defense. When those guys fly around out there, it gives us energy and that drive to go out there in critical situations.”

Starkel went on, “I talked to Kairee (Robinson) who had a tough night and told him that touchdown we had was your assist, when he blocked that punt on special teams and that’s our starting running back doing that!”

Robinson’s 21 carries garnered only 55 yards, but like Nevens, they were mano-a-mano yards, especially in helping close the game out at the end of the fourth quarter.

“And then I said to the sidelines, that next touchdown was their assist because they’re yelling, ‘Hey, he’s uncovered! He’s uncovered!’ Starkel said excitedly. “So it really does take everyone - everyone on that field to win a game and I really felt that tonight.”