It was a cold Utah night and no one really cared, because each team desperately needed a win.
For Utah State (6-5, 5-2 MW), it was their best chance to achieve bowl-eligibility. And the Aggies performed as expected for a surging team peaking at season’s end, especially after a 1-4 start.
In front of a home crowd of 13,677, Utah State hung on to beat San Jose State (6-4, 4-3 MW) 35-31, where the Spartans were desperate to get out of a funk, which is now three straight losses.
It was strangely familiar to how the Spartans started fast last week with an opening touchdown and interception against San Diego State then fell off, before coming alive again.
Chevan Cordeiro’s opening five-play, 81-yard drive found his favorite receiving target Elijah Cooks 36 yards in the end zone for a 6-0 lead, after a blocked extra point.
The ensuing Aggie drive then saw Spartan safety Tre Jenkins garner his second interception of the season.
“It was a simple cover four,” said Jenkins on the 12th overall interception for SJSU this season. “The two did a bender inside and I jumped it and made a play out of it.”
Chase Williams’ interception in the second half was the Spartans’ 13th INT of the season.
But Utah State responded with two Calvin Jenkins’ rushing touchdowns, as San Jose State went into a deep freeze for five straight offensive drives. Their fifth punt of the night was blocked leading to a 56-yard Aggie touchdown return and a 21-6 lead.
“That blocked punt should not have happened if we did our jobs,” said SJSU head coach Brent Brennan.
The Aggies likely saw on tape that San Diego State got close to blocking a number Spartan punts last week and keyed in on that weakness.
But with Cordeiro continuing his stellar play, there’s always a chance. Despite running for his life for a good part of the season, Cordeiro found Cooks again - this time for a 29-yard catch in the end zone to end the half trailing 21-13.
“It was one of those nights where you have that feeling you’re playing your best ball,” said Cooks who finished the game with three touchdown receptions (7 catches, 125 yards). “I felt like no one could stop me and I wanted to get the ball as much as I possibly could.”
A half answer for the second half
Though it was another tough loss, San Jose State found its legs and stayed the course much better than the previous week. With six minutes left in the game, the Spartans came back from 15 points down to take the lead 31-28 over the Aggies.
“Knowing my teammates have my back and staying strong to try and score on every drive is a mindset,” said Cordeiro on continually dealing with the frustrations of the game.
“I give Utah State’s OC credit for keeping the tempo going and also their players not getting tired,” said Jenkins. “It was definitely challenging and it helps them and they ran it well tonight.”
But as it always comes down to a game of inches and/or a game of mental mistakes, it was the latter that did in the Spartans. The little things that continue to be issues for San Jose.
“If we break it down to the fundamentals of missed tackles, not catching balls and missing assignments,” said Brennan on issues that have plagued the Spartans. “We continue to coach everything all the time and correcting things does not stop.”
“We can’t win games in November when the games are so tight and so close with these kinds of mistakes.”
Why the Spartans couldn’t punch all the way through
Breaking things down to the tangibles, besides the missed tackles and dropped passes, one can call them mental breakdowns just as well. But for a veteran team, it doesn’t make sense.
At the same time, it’s not an easy answer with all the equations on the field in a constant flux of play schemes and matchups.
“They’re hard to defend with their tempo and their quarterback Cooper Legas,” said Brennan. “We’re that team that gets to play these replacement quarterbacks in their fourth or fifth start when they start to play well and Legas played well tonight.”
Legas finished with 244 yards passing, 23-35, one touchdown pass and two interceptions.
In addition, Utah State also ran extra well with Jenkins 30 carries, 125 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns - clearly his best performance of the season.
In all, you have to turn to the Spartans and ask what exactly is happening in these losses. There are several things:
- Yes, dropped passes on both sides of the ball. Though the Spartans were +3 in turnovers, there were two other passes that could have, should have been intercepted that would have killed at least one scoring drive
- Special teams are not as robust as they should be to put it simply. The biggest issue here is allowing touchdown returns
- The defense has been in an uncharacteristic slump the last few games where they used to be able to clamp down when really needed
- Cordiero is running for his life and defenses are able to scheme to limit Cordeiro’s run options without a competitive run game
“I’m good. I could run the whole game,” said Cordeiro on how he continually plays his heart out. “I feel with my off-season training to even now with my cardio, I’m in the best shape ever.”
Prototypical Cordeiro finished the evening with 257 yards on 20 of 30 attempts and four touchdown passes with no interceptions.
Brennan summed up the night, “We couldn’t get a stop in the end. We couldn’t get a first down, then we dropped two passes on our last drive.”
One more for the regular season
A very short memory will be needed to wash away this loss.
The last game of the year against Hawaii should see a team with big chips on their shoulders next Saturday afternoon that will keep the Spartans hands full regardless of win-loss records.