Three Keys to a San Jose State Victory
1. Don’t let Jake Haener have his way in the red zone.
This first key is definitely of the “easier said than done” variety if season-to-date performance is considered. He’s thrown 55 times inside the 20-yard line and no one in the Mountain West with at least 10 throws in the red zone has been more accurate (69.1%) and he has a roughly similar touchdown rate (29.1%) to conference leader Carson Strong.
Conversely, San Jose State has been tested more than average by opponents and they’ve completed just 52.2% of passes but have managed a league-high 12 touchdowns. Worse yet, for all the breaks they’ve created as a unit this year, the Spartans are one of just two teams in the conference without a red zone interception. Fortunes can change in a short week, of course, but San Jose State will have its work cut out regardless.
2. Find some answers on third downs.
When the Spartans have struggled offensively this season, one major culprit has been an inability to move the chains on third down. In the five games that San Jose State has won, they’ve converted 31-of-65 (47.7%) opportunities, but that drops to 19-of-84 (22.6%) in the six games they’ve lost.
It’s critical that they come in at their best because the Bulldogs have been steady in those same situations on defense all season long. Fresno State currently ranks second in the Mountain West by allowing first downs on 58-of-161 (36%) tries, so one thing that could help is better play in those situations from Nick Starkel. He’s completed only 47.4% of his 57 third-down throws and has just 19 first downs.
3. Get a strong pass rush on early downs.
San Jose State’s pass rush has been come and go all year, but it’s worth noting that they’ve been able to do most of their damage on standard downs. On first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer, their 7.5% sack rate ranks 19th among FBS defenses, which could become a source of headaches for the Bulldogs since Fresno State has only been average (5.1%, 64th) in that regard on offense and, as one example, Jake Haener has thrown on first down more than any other Mountain West quarterback save for Carson Strong.
In other words, if you know you can expect the Bulldogs to throw far more often than not, making them pay for doing it could make a big impact.
San Jose State has beaten the odds in this rivalry before with a disadvantage on both paper and in the win column. In fact, they own a 4-3 advantage in the series during the time in which they’ve played as Mountain West rivals. And while they could get back on track to surprise one more foe, it just doesn’t seem terribly likely with an offense that you can’t really rely upon to show up every week. After all, the Spartans rank 122nd overall in terms of earned available yards per drive percentage.
The San Jose State defense should play well enough to help the home team hang around for longer than expected, but the unreliability of the offense will be their undoing. Expect the Valley Trophy to head back to Fresno.
Fresno State 30, San Jose State 20