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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 76: San Jose State

So this is exciting. Really, really exciting. San Jose State has a football team – well, the Spartans have always had a team, but this is a good team, one that should be very much in the mix for a bowl bid. That’s taken care of. The administration made an inspired hire in Mike MacIntyre, the former Duke assistant who has led S.J.S.U. on a steady uptick over the last 24 months. Good news. The university just hired a football-centric athletic director, Gene Bleymaier, who over 29 years at Boise State helped build the Broncos’ program into the national power it is today. Done, done and done. Thirdly, the Spartans were able to both extricate themselves from a sinking-ship WAC while landing a spot in the still-ticking Mountain West, ensuring the program’s future in these dangerous days of conference expansion. Team, coach, leader, conference. MacIntyre, Bleymaier, Mountain West. Done, done, done and done. This is an awesome time for San Jose State football.

Conference
WAC

Location
San Jose, Calif.

Nickname
Spartans

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 107

2011 record
(5-7, 3-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 83

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 31
    at Stanford
  • Sept. 8
    U.C. Davis
  • Sept. 15
    Colorado St.
  • Sept. 22
    at San Diego St.
  • Sept. 29
    at Navy
  • Oct. 13
    Utah St.
  • Oct. 20
    at U.T.S.A.
  • Oct. 27
    Texas St.
  • Nov. 3
    at Idaho
  • Nov. 10
    at N.M.S.U.
  • Nov. 17
    B.Y.U.
  • Nov. 24
    Louisiana Tech

Last year’s prediction

This won’t be the year for San Jose State. Not to say that the program’s time isn’t coming: it’s coming, even if winning days come not in the WAC but elsewhere – not to digress, but the WAC’s days are numbered, it seems. The team was so young last fall that it’s only logical to expect some kind of improvement, though as noted with Eastern Michigan, some improvement would only move San Jose State from horrendous to merely bad, as in from 1-12 to 3-9, give or take. Most of all, while the Spartans will be better – around three or four wins, maybe one more, which would be great with this schedule – the team is still a year away, at least. But the team will be better, without question.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The light didn’t turn on in 2011. The light turned on in 2010, actually, despite the fact that San Jose State lost a school-record 12 games during MacIntyre’s debut. Four of the Spartans’ last five losses two years ago, each during WAC play, came by a touchdown or less. Last fall, S.J.S.U. turned close-but-competitive losses into wins, by and large. There were more close losses, against U.C.L.A. and Nevada early and others late, but there’s something to be said for the process that takes a team from believing it can win – by hanging around in the fourth quarter – to believing it should win. Perhaps S.J.S.U. turned the corner over the year’s final two weeks, when it notched matching 27-24 wins over Fresno State and Navy. That sent the Spartans into the offseason on a high note, giving this team some confidence heading into 2012.

High point After beating Hawaii, 28-27, during a nationally televised Friday night game, MacIntyre said, “It was just a magical night for San Jose State.” No arguments here. The Spartans and Warriors did combine for 12 turnovers, true, but the way that S.J.S.U. battled back in the fourth quarter – the game-winning score came with 36 seconds left – seemed to cement in this team the importance of closing strong. In Hawaii and Navy, the Spartans notched wins over two of the best non-bowl teams in football.

Low point Still, S.J.S.U. struggled in close games. Five losses came by 10 or fewer points, including three straight WAC games – Louisiana Tech, Idaho and Utah State – by a combined 14 points. S.J.S.U. would get blown out only once, losing by 54 points to Andrew Luck-led Stanford in the season opener.

Tidbit Twelve of the program’s 19 losses under MacIntyre have come by 13 points or less. Each of the Spartans’ six wins have come by 10 points or less. Ergo, 18 of S.J.S.U.’s 25 games under MacIntyre have been decided by less than two touchdowns. That’s an astoundingly high total. Say one thing for the Spartans: they keep things interesting.

Tidbit (long drives edition) S.J.S.U.’s first scoring drive against U.C.L.A. on Sept. 10 spanned 88 yards on 16 plays and took 7:53 off the clock. According to the university, the program’s last scoring drive of 15 or more plays came on Oct. 23, 2004, when S.J.S.U. notched a 17-play, 78-yard drive against Hawaii. The Spartans’ last scoring drive that lasted more than seven minutes came against Tulsa on Nov. 16, 2003: lasting 7:13, the drive traveled 83 yards on 17 plays.

Tidbit (Stanford edition) Stanford has never been kind to San Jose State. Besides owning a 50-14-1 edge in the all-time series, winning the last four meetings by a combined score of 159-30, the Cardinal have also poached two of the most successful coaches in S.J.S.U.’s recent history. After going 35-20-1 at S.J.S.U. from 1979-83, Jack Elway left San Jose to become Stanford’s new head coach – two years after his son had graduated, which might help explain Elway’s mediocre record with the Cardinal. Less than a decade later, following the 1991 season, the Spartans lost Terry Shea after two years, 15 wins and one outright and one shared Big West title. Worse yet? Shea didn’t leave for Stanford to become its head coach, but rather to serve as then-coach Bill Walsh’s offensive coordinator.

Former players in the N.F.L.

12 WR Michael Avila (Carolina), LB Justin Cole (St. Louis), CB Coye Francies (Seattle), DT Jarron Gilbert (Chicago), DE Carl Ihenacho (Oakland), S Duke Ihenacho (Denver), WR James Jones (Green Bay), OG Fred Koloto (New York Jets), S Dwight Lowery (Jacksonville), FB Mohamed Marah (San Diego), CB Chris Owens (Atlanta), S Peyton Thompson (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

Competitive eaters
1. Joey Chestnut.
2. Sonya Thomas.
3. Patrick Bertoletti.
4. Tim Janus.
5. Gravy Brown.

Coaching

Mike MacIntyre (Georgia Tech ’89), 6-19 after two seasons at San Jose State. It wasn’t an auspicious debut for a coach most view as an up-and-comer in the profession: S.J.S.U. went 1-12 in 2010, though the team was far more competitive than that record indicates. The Spartans turned a corner last fall, validating the faith the university showed in hiring MacIntyre following the 2009 season. MacIntyre was the 2009 American Football Coaches Association F.B.S. Assistant Coach of the Year for his work as the defensive coordinator at Duke. He spent two seasons as David Cutcliffe’s coordinator with the Blue Devils, helping the program put together some of its finest defensive statistics over the last 20 years. Duke allowed 356.9 yards per game in 2008, his first season with the program, 67.4 fewer yards than in the season before; the Blue Devils also gave up only 23.4 points per game, nearly 10 points less than in Ted Roof’s final season. In 2009, Duke set a new program high by placing a trio of defenders on the post-season all-conference team. MacIntyre joined Duke after spending five seasons in the N.F.L., coaching the defensive backs with the Dallas Cowboys (2003-6) and the New York Jets (2007). As a college assistant, MacIntyre spent four years at Mississippi (1999-2002), where he coached the wide receivers — and played an important role in recruiting — and another two years at Temple (1997-98). Perhaps, seeing the importance MacIntyre has placed upon forming a tougher, more run-oriented S.J.S.U. team, it is not surprising to see that he spent four seasons learning under Bill Parcells with the Cowboys. His debut campaign was painful to watch at times, but really only in the win column; overall, the Spartans played hard, which was a great sight to see. Two years later, MacIntyre has S.J.S.U. in a wonderful place.

Players to watch

New offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren, formerly of Northern Arizona, inherits the best receiver corps in the WAC. That’s not all: S.J.S.U. also touts increased depth at running back — though one or two must still prove themselves during fall camp — and an offensive line that continues to grow in the program’s more physical system. Even with a changing cast at quarterback, which I’ll touch on below, Lindgren will work with an offense more than capable of building upon last season’s substantial improvement. For the Spartans’ new coordinator, the key will be finding an answer at quarterback while continuing to develop a power running game; with this set of targets in the passing game, S.J.S.U. could be extremely dangerous with greater consistency on the ground.

Every single meaningful receiver and tight end is back in the fold. Better yet, all but one of these returning contributors is an underclassmen, meaning that it’s natural to expect further growth throughout this coming season. First, the lone senior — and he’s a great one. Ryan Otten (52 receptions for 739 yards and 5 touchdowns) was the most productive tight end in the country last fall, notching three 100-yard games and six games with six or more receptions. While he went overlooked nationally as a junior, there will be no excuse for Otten to fly under the radar in 2012: S.J.S.U. is going to look for him early and often, over the middle of the field and in the red zone, and I wholly expect Otten to garner all-American honors as a senior. He’s superb.

Otten may also be the Spartans’ big-play threat, though sophomore Jabari Carr (33 for 476) flashed an ability to stretch the field as a rookie — coming on strong over the team’s final three games, which was a great sign. The steadiest target on the team is junior Noel Grigsby (89 for 886), who is making a steady assault on the program’s record books. Grigsby segued nicely from a spot in the supporting cast in 2010 into the starring role last fall, playing particularly well in the Spartans’ four biggest games; 39 of his receptions came against B.Y.U., Hawaii, Louisiana Tech and Fresno State.

Rounding out the receiver corps is junior Chandler Jones (61 for 566), giving S.J.S.U. four outstanding options to work with. Otten is outstanding, Grigsby an all-WAC lock, Carr a blossoming talent and Jones a proven target. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The backfield welcomes in two new contributors in former Minnesota transfer De’Leon Eskridge and JUCO transfer Alvin Jelks. This pair joins a crop of returning backs jostling for the right to replace Brandon Rutley, the team’s leading rusher and a valuable receiving option coming out of the backfield. Eskridge is a big get for this program: he’s a proven runner, one who led the Gophers in rushing as a freshman and junior — though not exactly lighting the Big Ten afire — before opting to spend his final season closer to home.

I picture him grabbing the starting job, especially seeing that he’s shown an ability to make plays in the passing game, but S.J.S.U. could stand to share the wealth more than it has in recent years. Hence the hope that Jelks can hit the ground running once he joins the team in August. If we hand Eskridge the starting job, look for Jelks to compete for secondary carries with holdovers like David Freeman and Jason Simpson. The biggest question, of course, is whether Eskridge can carry the load — and if not, if Jelks or a returning back can step into the void. Make no mistake: S.J.S.U. has the weapons to light off fireworks in the passing game, but this offense does need to make things happen between the tackles.

The offensive line will again be anchored at left tackle by senior David Quessenberry, an all-WAC selection a season ago. He is one of two returning starters, joining junior right guard Nicholas Kaspar. As of today, the biggest question mark up front — though the Spartans will miss center Robbie Reed and left guard Fred Koloto — is at right tackle, where S.J.S.U. is short on experience. While junior Amar Pal backed up former starter Andres Vargas a year ago, the former walk-on doesn’t look like a viable answer at the position. Instead, S.J.S.U. has focused on redshirt freshman Wes Schweitzer and junior Jon Meyer, with sophomore Keith Bendixen a third option if the staff opts to move him over from the backup role at right guard.

The interior is slightly less of a concern, though S.J.S.U. needs to find an answer at left guard. Senior Ryan Jones held the top spot heading out of the spring, though junior Moa Ngatuvai should remain a viable option once the team returns to the field in August. Ngatuvai started 11 games in 2007 before going on a three-year mission; after getting back into a rhythm last fall, he could do a nice job in a second turn as the full-time starter. For now, however, Jones and Kaspar flank junior center Reuben Hasani. Hasani might not match what Reed brought to the table — especially given Reed’s experience — but he has started six games over the last two years, so he’s not your typical replacement. Overall line play does hinge greatly on what S.J.S.U. gets at the two potential trouble spots. If two linemen step up, the Spartans could turn a somewhat questionable offensive front into one that should not be a problem during WAC play.

The offense will be good with the potential to be very good, with the slim chance – if quarterback play is strong, the offensive line shore up those two spots – of being very, very good. The defense, on the other hand, will settle for being merely good; more likely, this defense will be simply mediocre, and there’s a more than a slim chance that this defense fails to get stops with any consistency against the tougher portion of this year’s schedule.

What does S.J.S.U. need to do on defense to win games? I’d say that 27 points per game should be the goal, which would mark a three-point improvement over last year’s mark and a full touchdown less than the Spartans allowed during MacIntyre’s debut season. That’s over the span of the season; obviously, S.J.S.U. isn’t going to stop Stanford, and stronger passing teams like San Diego State and Louisiana Tech – and even a run-first team like Navy or more balanced B.Y.U. – are going to give the Spartans some difficulty.

There are starters to replace along each level of the defense: two starters up front, two at linebacker, two in the secondary. Of these groups, the defensive line remains the team’s strongest. That’s because of the two returning starters, one of whom earned all-WAC honors last fall and a second with the potential to garner postseason honors this December, though the latter’s all-conference days might lie one more year down the road.

Senior Travis Johnson (73 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 9.5 sacks) is quietly making a case for being one of the top non-B.C.S. conference ends in football. He’s already one of the most productive: Johnson enters his final season within striking distance of the school record for career sacks, thanks to his first-team all-WAC junior campaign. When on his game, supplying pressure off the edge, Johnson provides this defense with a much-needed degree of explosiveness on passing downs. S.J.S.U. has a few options on the other side in junior Sean Bacon and seniors David Tuitupou and Vincent Abbott. Tuitupou looks like the part; while he was largely a non-factor last fall as a JUCO transfer, he could fill Mohamed Marah’s shoes with ease.

Sophomore Travis Raciti (26 tackles, 3.5 for loss) arrived on campus built like a linebacker; at 235 pounds, Raciti looked like a long-term project at end. Two years and 50-plus pounds later, Raciti is a tackle with future all-WAC potential, even if those honors – ignore the fact that S.J.S.U. leaves the WAC next summer – lie a year or two down the road. The reason for optimism is simple: if his development as a starter last fall is any indication, Raciti is due to take another substantial step forward as he grows into his frame. He’ll be joined at tackle by senior Joe Nigos, while junior Anthony Larceval (33 tackles, 4.5 for loss) is one of the top reserve linemen in the WAC.

There are two stars along the front seven. One is Johnson; the other is junior linebacker Keith Smith (104 tackles), who has put together two very strong seasons – he might have been a little better as a freshman, but not by much – since stepping on campus in 2010. Smith is the lone returning starter at linebacker, but he’s productive enough to help S.J.S.U. slide two new faces into the starting lineup. One is going to be junior Vince Buhagiar (50 tackles), who has done a nice job when called upon. When it comes to the third starting linebacker, S.J.S.U. can pick and choose from a crop of redshirt freshmen and sophomores – Derek Muaava (15 tackles) tops that list.

There won’t be an Ihenacho listed on the Spartans’ two-deep for the first time in five years. The second of the two, Duke, leaves a pretty sizable hole at safety. But S.J.S.U. returns another good one in senior James Orth (78 tackles, 4 interceptions), a definite all-WAC contender, and hopes to team Orth with senior Cullen Newsome (26 tackles) and maintain last year’s level of play at the position. S.J.S.U. is going to miss Ihenacho, without any question; however, Orth and Newsome is a pretty strong pairing – Orth in particular.

The bigger issue lies at cornerback. One pressing question: Can S.J.S.U. continue to use sophomore Tyler Ervin at the position or will he need to move back to running back? If Eskridge or Jelks can’t deliver, MacIntyre might have no choice but to transition Ervin back to offense, which would deal a dreadful blow to a defense searching for Peyton Thompson’s replacement. As of today – and this might change – Ervin has joined senior Ronnie Yell (37 tackles) in the starting lineup. Even if this sticks, the position lacks the sort of proven production and experience needed to make it anything but a major concern. This is why S.J.S.U. is going to struggle against passing teams.

Junior punter Harrison Waid doubled as the Spartans’ kicker through the year’s first three games before S.J.S.U. made the move to Jens Alvernik. With Alernik gone – and he had a pretty nice year – the coaching staff hopes that redshirt freshman Alex Anastasi can take over at kicker, freeing up Waid to focus solely on punting. Good move: Waid is a weapon at punter, one who can flip field position and help out a potentially troublesome defense. A lot is riding on Anastasi’s ability to kick with consistency, though Waid could help on longer field goals.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Believe it or not, there was a time when S.J.S.U. was considering turning the quarterback job, held last year by Matt Faulkner, over to former Michigan transfer Tate Forcier. It was a good idea on paper, at least – but Forcier never, ever struck me as the sort of quarterback you’d want leading your offense onto the field. Forcier took care of this situation: he left the program before even stepping on the field, leading MacIntyre and S.J.S.U. to reopen the quarterback competition to a JUCO transfer and two of last season’s holdovers.

A fourth option, true freshman Joe Gray, enters the mix in August; this gives him a slim chance at playing, let alone starting, as a rookie. The springtime race – technically still undecided – involved the trio mentioned above: junior Dasmen Stewart, sophomore Blake Jurich and JUCO transfer David Fales. Stewart and Jurich battled Faulkner for the starting job last spring and summer, with Stewart making one inconsistent start before returning to a backup role. While Faulkner wasn’t superb, he did become the program’s first 3,000-yard thrower since 2007, and ended the year on a roll.

Stewart’s running ability might give him one advantage over his competition, but based on how each fared during the spring, Fales is the odds-on favorite to start the season opener. He began his college career at Nevada, which gives some idea as to his ability, before spending two successful seasons on the JUCO ranks in California. He was the best passer during the spring – Stewart was the worst, particularly during the spring game – and was able to quickly grasp most of the working pieces of S.J.S.U.’s system. This bodes well for his future with this offense. MacIntyre has indicated that he won’t name a starter until mid-August; when he does, it should be Fales.

Game(s) to watch

The WAC title continues to run through Louisiana Tech, a team that heads to San Jose in the regular season finale. The Spartans also get the WAC’s other title contender, Utah State, at home – this is good for business. Is S.J.S.U. better than both teams, or one of the two? Not on paper. But getting the Bulldogs and Aggies at home significantly increases the Spartans’ chances at winning the WAC before heading into the M.W.C., even if I believe that Louisiana Tech stands heads and shoulders above the rest of the league. S.J.S.U. also takes on one F.C.S. team and two new conference foes fresh off the F.C.S. ranks.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Three clear wins: U.C. Davis, Texas State and Texas-San Antonio. Two additional conference games that S.J.S.U. should win, even if both come on the road: Idaho and New Mexico State. An early-season home game against Colorado State, which shouldn’t begin rounding into form under Jim McElwain until later in the year. Home games against the WAC’s best in Louisiana Tech and Utah State. You can see why this is looking like a special year for the Spartans – and special, in this case, means reaching bowl eligibility just two years after losing a program-record 12 games. The question isn’t whether S.J.S.U. will reach bowl eligibility – or even if this team, with six wins, would get a bowl bid – but rather whether the Spartans can make a serious run to a WAC title. So, can they? Absolutely. But they won’t. This has less to do with S.J.S.U., which could win eight games, and more to do with a terrific Louisiana Tech team and a Utah State squad that should be even better than it was a season ago. So what’s the story with these Spartans? Whether S.J.S.U. can make another rocketing jump in the win column depends on a few factors: quarterback play, the offensive line and the secondary, with special emphasis on cornerback. There are deficiencies here that have been slightly overlooked among the program’s feel-good offseason. In the big picture, however, S.J.S.U. does quite a few things well. This team has a very strong head coach; has a wonderful receiver corps; will get strong play at end and linebacker; and if the running game clicks, might be able to dictate field possession thanks to its strong punter. This is obviously the program’s best team since 2008 and likely its best since 2006. A nice team – and a nice program – with a bright future.

Dream season After losing at Stanford to open the year, S.J.S.U. embarks on a nine-game winning streak – the program’s longest since 1986. While the regular season ends in disappointing fashion, with the Spartans losing to B.Y.U. and Louisiana Tech, the Spartans cap life in the WAC with a 9-3 finish.

Nightmare season S.J.S.U. takes care of business against the weaklings but struggles beating the stouter teams on its schedule. The end result is a supremely disappointing 4-8 finish. The wins come over U.C. Davis, Texas State, U.T.S.A. and Idaho.

In case you were wondering

Where do San Jose State fans congregate? One option is Spartan Blitz, an independent San Jose State site. You can also try SJSUInsider.com, where you can find the majority of football chatter. For local coverage, check out the Web site of the San Jose Mercury News, where Jon Wilner does his thing.

San Jose State’s all-name nominee LB Moses Saucedo.

Word Count

Through 49 teams 176,033.

Up Next

Who is No. 75? The head coach at tomorrow’s university is the only one in the program’s modern era with his initials. He is also only the second coach whose last name starts with the initial and the first whose first name begins with the initial. I am cackling as I write this.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    Rich Rodriguez at Arizona? AKA DickRod?

  2. Steve says:

    Matt Faulkner wasn’t the first SJSU QB to pass for 3000 yards in a season. The Spartans’ Mike Perez threw for more than 3500 yards in 1987.

    Paul: Ooof. Sorry about that. You know what’s worse? Adam Trafalis threw for 3,022 yards in 2007. Going to change the sentence above.

  3. george says:

    Maybe bathroom humor-North Carolina State?

  4. David says:

    Cackling like a pirate? Washington State.

  5. Burnt Orange says:

    Spartans were third in the nation in fewest penalty yards per game last season behind Navy and Bama. Coaching.

  6. David says:

    I hate when I read sdrawkcab. Leach is the first L, second M as opposed to second L, first M.

  7. Afterthought says:

    Cackling like a pirate indeed. Wow, nobody got that.

    Proof that ECWhoo and CUSA are an afterthought on par with the Sun Belt.

    Arrrrr, she blows (“she” being Crackalina).

  8. Bixby23 says:

    And even worse (though he probably doesn’t think so) his name is Tafralis, not Trafalis!
    Great article. You’ve clearly done your homework, and maybe somebody else’s, too!

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