San Jose State Football: 2021 Season Recap
The 2020 Mountain West football champions didn’t have the title defense they hoped for, but don’t mistake them for the same old Spartans.
Are the Spartans are at a crossroads?
San Jose STate Football: 2021 By the numbers
2021 Season Summary
It’s hard to pin down exactly when it seemed apparent 2021 would not be as charmed for the San Jose State Spartans as their run to the top of the Mountain West was the previous year.
Perhaps it was Nick Starkel’s first pick-six of the year, a warning sign in a season-opening blowout of Southern Utah during which SJSU didn’t have many other blemishes. Maybe it was Starkel’s second pick-six the following week against USC, which came while down just nine points on the road in the fourth quarter and killed any chance at a late rally. It could have been the following week when the Spartans slogged their way to a road win against Hawaii, a game in which the offense couldn’t muster even four yards per play, or the week after against Western Michigan when Starkel suffered an arm injury that would knock him out for the next five games and set the tone for a season that was an exercise in frustration on many fronts.
2020 wasn’t a fluke for San Jose State, though skeptics might suggest otherwise, because they didn’t nosedive back to the bottom of the West division. It wasn’t anything so dramatic. More accurately, it was a season where one side of the ball continued to hold up its end of the bargain while the other faltered, which didn’t leave a lot of room for surprises. In terms of post-game win expectancy, the Spartans won just one game where they were under 50% (Hawaii) and lost one where they were over 50% (Nevada).
It’s not as grabby to say a team was average, but that’s exactly where San Jose State found themselves by season’s end.
What Went Right For the Spartans?
The Spartans defense didn’t create quite as much havoc as it did in 2020 — the team’s sack rate dipped from 8.2% to 6.3% while its stuff rate slid from 17.9% to 16.8% — but even if they weren’t getting into the backfield quite as often it’s not hard to see that, by and large, they did their job. The net points per drive and available yards percentage figures above are somewhat deceptive: SJSU’s defense was actually 48th and 56th by those respective measures, while their standing in terms of power success rate allowed actually improved nationally (from 63rd to 45th) despite a slight dip there (70% to 65.2%).
Conversely, the Spartans also allowed the same third-down conversion rate as they had in 2020 (39.7% vs. 39.2%), but they dropped from fifth to eighth among Mountain West teams because others simply got better. The defense also improved its red zone touchdown conversion rate from 60% to 50%, but its overall conversion rate fell from 72% (third in the MW) to 84.8% (tied for seventh).
If that all seems confusing, imagine how it must have felt to those in the locker room. In laymen’s terms, consider that only San Diego State allowed fewer yards per play than San Jose State last fall and weren’t that far off from their 2020 level of production and gave up as many points per game as Nevada.
Individually, Kyle Harmon once again finished second in the conference in total tackles, continuing the legacy of past Spartan linebackers like Frank Ginda and Christian Tago who always seemed to be in on every play. Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko weren’t quite as dominant as they had been in 2020, but the defensive line also got a lot more help from the linebackers than in years past: Five players at the position had at least four tackles for loss, the first time a San Jose State defense has accomplished that feat in their short time within the Mountain West.
In the defensive backfield, cornerbacks Bobby Brown II and Nehemiah Shelton each finished the season with at least 12 passes defended, one of just two duos in the Mountain West to do so. On offense, tight end Derrick Deese Jr. made his case as the best player at his position not named Trey McBride, leading the team in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns, while Tyler Nevens, even if he wasn’t quite as explosive as he was down the stretch in 2020, still put together what was arguably the most productive season by a Spartans running back (167 attempts, 768 yards, eight TDs) since Tyler Ervin left town in 2015.
What Went wrong For the Spartans?
The short answer is that the offense wasn’t nearly as proficient as it was in 2020. At quarterback, Starkel didn’t look nearly as sharp before his injury as he had the previous season while Nick Nash looked stretched as a full-time starter in his absence. Nash remained pretty effective as a runner, averaging 5.7 yards on 68 attempts (not adjusted for sacks), but his completion rate fell to 53.6% even as his yards per attempt improved from 6.3 to 7.0.
As a team, the Spartans’ percentage of 20-yard pass plays fell from 13.9% to 11.2%. You have to imagine that’s a big reason why, with Starkel moving on, head coach Brent Brennan brought in Hawaii’s Chevan Cordeiro from the transfer portal. Additionally, San Jose State regressed big time in terms of turnover margin, sliding from +2 to -12, the worst figure in the conference, in no small part thanks to a whopping 26 fumbles (of which SJSU lost 14), the most of any FBS team.
Some of that also has to do with drop-offs in offensive line play, as well. Where the Spartans could boast one of the nation’s best pass-protection units in 2020, they were merely fine in 2021 as the sack rate allowed rose from 2.2% to 5.6%. That latter rate still ranked 42nd among FBS teams but, combined with a lack of progress in long-running issues running the ball (24.2% stuff rate, 126th; 50% power success rate, 124th), meant that more drives stalled out from game to game.
As for the team’s pass catchers, they weren’t bad but it’s an open question about how much of the regression can be attributed to uneven quarterback play and how much of it comes down to missing Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker. Despite playing in four more games last year, only Deese Jr. had more ten-yard catches (31) than Gaither (23) and Walker (24) did in 2020. Isaiah Hamillton and Jermaine Braddock flashed potential and each averaged at least 13 yards per catch, but it’ll be interesting to see what roles they play going forward since, as with Nash, the Spartans also brought in Elijah Cooks and Justin Lockhart from the transfer portal.
Interesting Statistics from 2021
- 29 FBS teams had at least as many passes defended as San Jose State did in 2021 (62), but no team had fewer interceptions (six) than the Spartans.
- Punter Will Hart helped the Spartans finish 21st among FBS teams with 41.79 net yards per punt, the team’s best average since 2015.
- Viliami Fehoko became the first Spartans defender with at least six sacks in back-to-back seasons since Travis Johnson in 2011-12.
- San Jose State had its most penalties per game (6.5) and penalty yards per game (65.2) since at least 2009.
Play of the year
While no play approached the heads-up touchdown grab that Bailey Gaither had against Army back in 2019, there were a few great plays from players who could play big roles next year like Jermaine Braddock and Sam Olson. Given the situation and relative stakes, however, this grab by Charles Ross, displaying excellent body control, gave SJSU the breathing room it needed to outlast Wyoming on the road.
— San José State Football (@SanJoseStateFB) October 30, 2021
A brief look ahead to 2022
From their action in the transfer portal and on the recruiting trail, the Spartans don’t look like they will simply run things back and hope for a better result next fall. On paper, Fresno State is probably the class of the West here in late winter, but the rest of the division has more than a few questions and, with a few more breaks, the chances to rebound back into a bowl are good.
They’ll have to do it while replacing a number of key contributors, though, like Starkel, Deese Jr., Hall, and Jack Snyder. If the transfer newcomers are able to hit the ground running in Kevin McGiven’s offense and up-and-comers like Tre Smith and Soane Toia can shore up the defense, that’ll mean taking a few strides toward the kind of sustained success that has often been rare in San Jose.
A trip to Auburn highlights the non-conference schedule, but the rest (Portland State, Western Michigan, at New Mexico State) is friendly. The same can’t be said of San Jose State’s conference, though, as they must travel to Fresno and San Diego and also Utah State.