Jimmy Durkin, who covers San Jose State football program for the San Jose Mercury News, was kind enough to answer 10 questions about the Spartans heading into the Military Bowl.
1. Would you talk a little bit about the recent history of the San Jose State football program?
This is the first bowl appearance for San Jose State since 2006. They were eligible in 2008 at 6-6 and were lined up for the Motor City Bowl, but didn't get an invite at the end. Florida Atlantic swooped in. This is only their second bowl game since 1990.2. What can you tell us about the rebuilding job done by coach Mike MacIntyre, who recently left to take the head coaching position at Colorado?
When Mac came in three years ago, the program had never had the full complement of 85 scholarships for various reasons, but mostly due to poor academic ratings. The academics had begun to improve under previous coach Dick Tomey, and (MacIntyre) cleaned up the academics even more. That allowed them to get to 85 scholarships last year and this is their second year with the full amount. So basically, until 2011, they were almost like a FCS school competing against FBS schools. Mac brought in SEC recruiting experience (he was the recruiting coordinator at Ole Miss for four years, most notably bringing in Patrick Willis). That helped the Spartans step up their game in that area. He was innovative in recruiting by organizing traveling camps so the coaches could go down to Southern California (very fertile recruiting zone) and work out kids. That helped them land a few notable talented players. He brought in a good crew of assistants (despite SJSU not paying very well). He brought in a new strength and conditioning coach from Stanford (Dave Forman) and he's gotten them in extremely good shape, which is why they tend to excel in the second half. And overall, he convinced them they are good enough to beat teams and created a competitive culture. He liked to say that in his first year, none of the players were worried about losing their job because there was no one on the team capable of taking it from them. Now, in large part due to 85 scholarships, they have the depth to create competition and be on the same level as the teams they are playing. The only key now will be maintaining that now that MacIntyre if off to Colorado.
3. Even though San Jose State lost its opener, a three-point loss to Stanford had to be a “moral” victory, right?
No one on the team would call it a "moral" victory and maybe that's not quite the accurate word. But it definitely was a confidence-building performance. They believed they were good, but until you get proof against a real opponent, especially a good one, you never truly know. They knew after that game that they were pretty good.
4. Did the team have any troubles rebounding from the loss to Utah State –- which came at home, no less? Were there any other hiccups during the season?
They responded very well to that game. It was an almost embarrassing performance, given that they allowed 13 sacks. But they ended up allowing no sacks in their next four games and only two sacks total in their final six (both sacks were by BYU). It helped that the schedule was very kind in the four games after Utah State (at UTSA, home vs. Texas State, at Idaho, at New Mexico State). They had a first-half hiccup against a terrible Idaho team. Idaho trimmed the lead to 14-13 at one point in the third quarter, but they eventually woke up and won 42-13.
5. How would you describe the style of offense the Spartans run? There’s a huge imbalance between the rushing attack (ranked 102nd among FBS schools) and the passing attack (ranked 11th nationally). Why don’t teams load up to stop the pass?
San Jose State runs out of the pistol formation. The offense varies from 4-5 receivers (including the tight end) to a two tight end, two back set. They throw a lot of different looks out there. They've tried their hardest to be balanced, and usually try to start the game with some balance, but eventually always turn to the pass because that's what has worked. What makes it nearly impossible to load up against the pass is the depth of talent in the passing game. They have four very good receivers, an excellent tight end and, when healthy, some decent pass receiving options out of the backfield. And because (quarterback) David Fales is so accurate, he's able to pick apart defenses and one of those guys usually ends up open.
6. Who are some of the key players on offense for San Jose State?
Wide receiver Noel Grigsby is the school's career leader in receptions and receiving yards. He set those marks in the middle of this, his junior season. So he's still got another year to add to that. He catches just about everything thrown to him and a vast majority of his receptions are for first downs or touchdowns. Chandler Jones is another receiver capable of making big plays. Senior tight end Ryan Otten is a future NFL player. He was a Mackey Award semifinalist and the school's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards for a tight end.
7. How would you describe the style of defense the Spartans run? The numbers against the run are excellent and against the pass are good – is there one thing the defense does best?
The defense really gets after the quarterbacks. They were tied for fifth in the nation in sacks, nearly tripling their sack total from last season. The front seven is very good. The linebackers are active and good in run support. The secondary has grown throughout the season to be a pretty effective unit. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer, now the interim head coach, does a good job of mixing up coverages and blitzing at effective times. He doesn't blitz a ton, but picks the right moments.
8. Who are some of the key players on defense for San Jose State?
Senior defensive end Travis Johnson is the school's career record holder in sacks and tackles for loss. He's among the nationally leaders in both categories this year and leads all active NCAA players in career sacks. Six members of their front seven make All-WAC first or second team. Johnson, DT Travis Raciti and LB Vince Buhagiar were first team and DE Peter Tuitupou along with DT Anthony Larceval were second team. Also, DB Bené Benwikere is a playmaker. He has seven interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. He's the guy that's always in the right place at the right time.
9. How would you describe the special teams play of the Spartans? What has been the key to success of the kickoff return unit? Why have the punt returns struggled so much? How have your kicker and punter performed?
The special teams play has been pretty good, although a little bugged by injuries. Tyler Ervin missed the last half of the season with a shoulder injury, although he hopes to play in the bowl game. He had two kickoff returns for touchdowns. He was also the co-starter at RB. He's very good. The return game hasn't been quite as good without him. The main focus in the punt return game has just been fielding the ball, especially after one game where there were a couple fumbles. They've also had the misfortune of facing quite a few really good punters, including Ray Gay Award winner Ryan Allen of Louisiana Tech and BYU's Riley Stephenson. San Jose State's kicker has been excellent. Austin Lopez, a freshman, is a perfect 15 for 15 on FGs. He's missed a couple PATs, but overall he's been very solid. Punter Harrison Waid is usually pretty good. He's done very well with placing rugby style punts inside the 10 yard line.
10. What will be the keys to success for San Jose State in the Military Bowl?
The key will be a quick start. The games in which they struggled, SJSU fell behind early. With this game coming more than a month after their last game (and after dealing with a coaching change), it could be easy to envision the team not starting off so well. But if they come out and score early and take a lead, they should be in good shape. They've been very good while playing from ahead. If Fales connects on his first few passes for some big yardage, that will be a sign they are clicking. The defense has had a tendency to allow a big play at some bad times, so if they avoid giving up long touchdowns, that should also be a key. They've typically been good enough that over a long, sustained drive, they can come up with a play to either force a turnover or prevent a touchdown.