San Jose State has a lot on its plate Thanksgiving Day at CEFCU Stadium.
Not only is the Battle of the Wally Trophy set to be held for the eighth time, but the Spartans (5-6, 3-4 Mountain West) are in dire need of a win in the regular season finals against rivals Fresno State. Be a bowl.
“It’s like a playoff game,” SJSU quips Zack Snyder. “If we win, we have to keep playing, so it looks like all the cards are on the table.”
The problem is, the Bulldogs (8-3, 5-2) also lack motivation, considering a win would secure a Mountain Division title and a spot in the conference championship game—until Boise State beat No. 22 San. Defeats Diego State on Friday.
The Spartans, who kicked off their 2019 campaign with a win over the Bulldogs, are looking forward to the challenge after last year’s matchup was canceled due to COVID-19 complications.
San Jose State coach Brent Brennan said, “It’s Thanksgiving, we’re on national TV, we’re playing a meaningful game in November, which is exactly what you want.”
At least 19 players are scheduled to take part in senior day pregame activities, including quarterback Nick Starkle, who missed five games in October with a broken collarbone.
The SEC transfer is in her sixth and final year of eligibility, and her collegiate career is not set to end.
“It’s a real thing for all of our seniors,” Starkle said. “It means a lot to us. I know I’m not just speaking for myself when I say this game is really the most important game I’ve ever played, just because of all the implications behind it.”
If San Jose State hopes to play back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1986-87, here are some keys to Thursday’s win:
efficiency and efficiency
San Jose State ranks last in the Mountain West in both turnover margin and possession time.
Starkle’s absence is in part one reason the Spartans are still fighting to survive their season, although he has thrown an interception in every game he has played and only completed 53 percent of his passes. The ongoing game was recently filled with 12 yards on 22 carries – and one-sided – defeats, 48-17 against Utah State.
Going into the goodbye week, Starkle had already worked out a game plan for practice.
“I think we can work on our discipline, our strength at third down and the attention to detail we have in the game,” he said. “Is that protection, is that passage depth, what to do against the man, what to do against the field. Attention to detail in a pass game goes a long way for us, especially the way we take offense .
Starkle will have to keep an eye on Bulldog safety Evan Williams, who leads the team with three interceptions. Williams attended Brennan’s alma mater, St. Francis High in Mountain View.
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The No. 2 scoring in the Fresno State Mountain West is driven by offense.
Quarterback Jake Hainer, a Pac-12 transfer from Washington, is from Monte Vista High in Danville. Ronnie Rivers running back is another East Bay product out of Freedom High, and his backup Jordan Mims is a graduate of nearby Menlo-Atherton High.
“I have nothing but respect for their entire offensive unit,” Hall said. “It comes down to how well we can stop runs and how well we can put pressure on Hainer. They’re really the big keys to the game.”
Rivers and mimes combine for over 120 rushing yards per game and have crossed the goal line 12 times.
2 in the country with 122 tackles, San Jose State linebacker Kyle Harmon will be busy racing sideline-to-sideline all afternoon.
Hainer caught the attention of the entire nation when he produced UCLA’s 40–37 upset at the Rose Bowl in September, and finished second in the conference in passing yards (315.2) and touchdowns (28) per game.
“He’s incredibly accurate and he’s slippery,” Brennan said. “So he can throw the ball well in moves. I think his toughness is well documented and he is fun to watch.”
After a grueling schedule that included no home games in September and trips to different time zones in three of the four weeks, San Jose State is playing one home game after another for only the time being.
The Spartans have attracted at least 15,000 fans for four of their last five home games, although it is unclear whether fans will choose to stay home for Thanksgiving and watch games on FS1 while preparing for a family feast.
“I understand the convenience of sitting at your own home,” Brennan said. “Beer is cheap, whatever, but you don’t get the special feeling and energy of a college football game with bands and cheerleaders and students and crowds and rivalries. You hear the hits and the whistles and the excitement of it. It’s great this year Well, I expect people to come in big numbers this time, because you know Fresno is going to bring in a lot of fans, they always do.”
For the showrunners, the Spartans are offering Crazy George bobblehead dolls.
“I want one of those,” said Brennan.