At long last, fall camp is officially over, and the Cardinal is five days and a wakeup from a game that actually means something. Stanford opens its season and the David Shaw Era on Saturday against San Jose State at Stanford Stadium.
We'll be previewing the game, including the key matchups and players to watch, throughout week. To kick things off, here's an interview with Jim from Spartan Blitz, who was kind enough to answer a few questions about this year's SJSU team.
Rule of Tree: Why will San Jose State improve on last year's 1-12 record?
Spartan Blitz: There's nowhere to go but up, isn't there? Last year's one "win" came against a FCS team, Southern Utah, and came largely as a result of Southern Utah's loss of their starting QB (who had been 23-39-230 up to that point) due to injury. Even at that, SJSU managed to pull together a two minute drill at the end of the game to win by a score of 16-11.
I think we'll all agree here that it's impolite to discuss home losses to UC-Davis, yes? [Editor's Note: Yes!] Moving on..
Last season wasn't dog-kicking bad, I suppose. Four of those losses were by a total of 11 points, but they all have one thing in common: They were losses, and most of the opponents' final points in those games came in their last possession. That's youth and inexperience and lack of depth shining through for all to see.
This year's OOC schedule is not as brutal as last year's was, what with trips to Tuscaloosa and Madison and SLC, and Boise Junior College has up and left the WAC for greener pastures in the MWC. Most predictions have SJSU winning two or three games this year, with a puncher's chance of beating Colorado State on the road, and home games against perennial WAC doormat New Mexico State (fourth game of the season) as well as Idaho, Nevada, Hawaii, and the Naval Academy to round out the home slate.
The current roster breakdown is 39 Frosh (of which 13 are redshirt Frosh), 19 Soph, 23 Junior, 25 Senior. So SJSU is still an overwhelmingly "young" team as FBS teams go, and this year is largely expected to be a set-up for next year's breakout team. The thought around here is that some of those close losses that we had - like (redacted) and Idaho and Utah State and New Mexico State - can be turned into wins this season.
RoT: What can we expect from quarterback Matt Faulkner in his first career start?
SB: Beats me, and that's the truth. The plain fact of the matter is that there were three candidates to be starting QB this year -- Matt Faulkner, Dasmen Stewart and Blake Jurich, with Joe Gray expected to redshirt and Tate Forcier waiting out his NCAA-imposed one-year delay. According to folks in the know, Faulkner was the best overall QB by a whisker, but as is the case with most SJSU QB decisions over the past half-decade or so, it's a case of wishing the winner had one guy's arm, another guy's legs, and a third guy's leadership; the Spartans haven't really had a complete-package QB since Jeff Garcia, and even that was an iffy proposition. It just sucks for Faulkner to know that he's the placeholder for the guy that everyone else is waiting for, that being Tate Forcier.
Last year, he would routinely come in on the third SJSU series, and did have some success here and there, but also had issues. His stat line from last year (21-39-1-1, NCAA rating 101 and change) leaves little if anything to predict how things will go. He did lead his team (Mt. SAC) to a mythical national championship in 2009, but also was a redshirt at CSU-Fresno in 2007 and rode the pine in 2008.
Regrettably, what we'll see out of Faulkner is largely going to be a product of the condition and quality of play of his offensive line, which for the past four seasons at SJSU has been an absolute abomination. It is said that this year's group is bigger and better and stronger and more fit, but that's the same line we hear out of every unit, every year.
RoT: What's the state of the running game this season?
SB: See the third paragraph of the above answer regarding Faulkner. This year's offense in all phases will depend on the play of the O-line. The RB position is more than adequately filled by senior Brandon Rutley, but it will still be out to see if he can recapture some of the flashes of brilliance he showed in his freshman season. He carries a 3.7 yard-per-rush average, but a big chunk of that was run down by an injury-plagued sophomore season. I personally am intrigued by 6-2 223-pound freshman Ben Thompson, who has been getting a lot of reps in practice and is proving to be a beast to bring down.
RoT: Who is the Spartans' best offensive weapon?
SB: In terms of pure athleticism and game-break ability, I believe Rutley is the best individual weapon; the WR corps in general -- and in particular sophomore Noel Grigsby -- are going to be a handful for any defense that isn't prepared to go up and get the ball. There's a lot of good, young breakaway talent there (Grigsby was a freshman All-America last season), but much of that depends on the OL protecting the QB enough to get the WR's the ball. As the old song goes, "The knee-bone's connected to the thigh-bone..."
RoT: What's the strength of the SJSU defense?
SB: I believe the linebacking corps will lead the D and give most offensive lines fits. SJSU returns two freshman All-America linebackers in Keith Smith and Vince Buhagiar, and they will probably start, backed up by fifth-year senior Pompey Festejo and junior Kyler O'Neal. Another position section to watch is the defensive backfield, where Brandon Driver will continue to be the designated "lockdown" cornerback, and senior Duke Ihenacho returns at the safety position to help out third-year starter Peyton Thompson on the other side. Again, a lot of the success of the D depends on whether or not the offense can sustain drives. The last time we had such a talented defense was in the 2008 season, but that defensive unit got basically burned out because the offense was so craptastic that they always had to defend short-field or run right back out after the offense's constant three-and-outs.
RoT: What's your prediction for the game?
SB: I'd like to be optimistic -- I really would. However, I believe Stanford just has too much athleticism in too many places for SJSU to handle -- at this time. The game will probably close going into halftime (17-14 or so), but I believe Stanford will end up winning 38-21 or so. I do not believe that the game will end up in the routs that we've seen in the past few years, and if SJSU can control the ball better than they have in the past, and the LB corps and D-line can keep Andrew Luck from carving them up, then the Spartans may well have a puncher's chance at the end.