Mountain West Football Championship: San Jose State’s Ten Most Important Players
The San Jose State Spartans will need these players to have big games to beat Boise State in the Mountain West football championship game.
Some names are familiar, others may not be.
The San Jose State Spartans have relied on a powerful offense and a strong pass rush to reach the first Mountain West football championship game in program history, but Brent Brennan’s upstarts will go into Saturday as underdogs against the Boise State Broncos.
It has been a team effort for the Spartans throughout the fall, proving that they can win with defense, an explosive passing game the next, and then a revitalized running game after that. It means that the most important players to their upset bid against Boise State may not be the names you’d expect to see, so read on.
10. Chris Wood, kickoff specialist. How will the Spartans decide to handle Avery Williams? Boise State’s special teams ace has long proven he’s a difference maker, meaning that Wood could play a small but critical role. 87 FBS players have kicked off at least 30 times this season and only Iowa State’s Drake Nettles had a worse touchback percentage than Wood’s 6.45%.
If that isn’t enough, Wood has four kicks out of bounds on just 31 attempts, the most in the conference. Against a team with a powerful offense like Boise State, doing what you can to avoid giving away the field position game will be a massive difference maker.
9. Kenyon Reed, cornerback. There’s a couple reasons why Reed appears on this list. To begin, the Kansas State transfer made his first start of 2020 in the win over Nevada and will have at least a partial role in containing Khalil Shakir as he moves around from play to play.
He also took over punt return duties from Bailey Gaither in the last couple weeks, as well, averaging 11.4 yards per return while flashing the agility to potentially break a bigger play. That double duty could help San Jose State turn the field position battle in its favor at some point.
8. and 7. Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko, defensive linemen. How good is Boise State’s offensive line? Hall and Fehoko will provide a more definitely answer one way or another because they are probably the best pair of edge rushers that the Broncos have faced all season. Chances are the Spartans have looked at film from Boise State’s games against Colorado State and Wyoming, where they allowed three sacks in each, but John Ojukwu and Nick Crabtree will have their work cut out for them.
6. Tre Walker, wide receiver. It might be a little unusual to see such a big name right away, but the ways in which he could make his most important contributions are a little different than what you’d expect. After all, it was Bailey Gaither who led the Spartans in catches and receiving yards, and Gaither and tight end Derrick Deese Jr. tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns.
What Walker has done, however, is keep the offense moving by being the Spartans’ most reliable pass catcher on third downs. It may be more accurate, actually, to say he’s continued to do that: The senior turned 19 third-down catches into 15 first downs in 2019, and he’s 9-for-9 while averaging 21.1 yards per catch in 2020.
5. Nick Starkel, quarterback. This might be surprising, too, given that Starkel’s overall passer rating, 164.34, has only been surpassed in the last decade by a handful of the Mountain West’s most memorable QBs: Nick Stevens, Garrett Grayson, Kellen Moore, Andy Dalton. That’s the entire list and some very good company to keep.
Digging into his splits, Starkel has also been the conference’s best quarterback on third downs, when his team is down by one to seven points, and in the fourth quarter. He’s also neck-and-neck with Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier by red zone efficiency, too, but the only reason he doesn’t rank higher is that defense is going to be the unit that wins the championship.
4. Kyle Harmon, inside linebacker. The latest in a long run of tackling machines, Harmon didn’t really miss a beat in replacing Ethan Aguayo this fall. He averaged over eleven tackles per game while chipping in with three tackles for loss and two passes defended, so he’s been a critical part of a defense that has made huge jumps in Line Yards Per Carry and Opportunity Rate.
With George Holani’s availability for the title game is up in the air after he left the regular season finale against Wyoming with injury, Harmon’s ability to slow Andrew Van Buren, a relative plodder by comparison, at a minimum could create more favorable passing down situations as the game progresses.
3. Jack Snyder, offensive tackle. The longest-tenured Spartan on either side of the ball has been sensational for an offensive line that has worked in harmony to protect Nick Starkel and help Nick Nash prove his running packages are more than a gimmick. According to Pro Football Focus, he hadn’t allowed a pressure while pass-blocking all season long leading into the victory over Nevada.
They’ll need one more top-notch performance against a Broncos front seven that has struggled with injuries up front but has still managed to unearth yet another impact pass rusher in Shane Irwin. He’s accounted for six of Boise State’s 16 sacks, so this one-on-one matchup
2. and 1. Tre Jenkins and Tre Webb, safeties. Only Nevada saw more passing attempts per game than San Jose State, but the two Tres are a big reason why they allowed fewer yards per attempt than in 2019 despite allowing a 64.4% completion rate.
Webb, the senior leader on the Spartans defense, and Jenkins, a sophomore, are here for the same reason that Reed made this list: Stopping Khalil Shakir will be paramount, and only Utah State’s Shaq Bond averaged more tackles per game than Webb among Mountain West safeties. Among sophomore defenders anywhere in the conference, Jenkins was surpassed by only A.J. Vongphachanh and Jacoby Windmon by that same measure.