Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, a swapping of WAC stature took place during the Idaho Vandals' 29-25 defeat of San Jose State.
Once the doormat of the WAC and arguably the worst team in the FBS the last few seasons, the Vandals served notice that they are no longer a penciled-in victory for San Jose State or the rest of the WAC, and quite possibly replaced the Spartans as the conference's rising program.
As for Dick Tomey's squad, they may be headed back to the cellar of the WAC that they for so long occupied prior to his arrival in San Jose.
For myself, it wound up being only the second home game in the last four years that I missed, and despite my alma mater taking the crushing defeat in the final seconds, it may prove to be the most exciting game played at Spartan Stadium this season. And true to Spartan form, this home game, like some other barn-burners against the likes of Boise State and Hawaii, teased the home fans with a great show but still wound up in a SJSU loss.
The main reason for my absence, outside of needing to stay home and tend to some family matters, was my former college roomate and fellow Spartan die-hard, Geoff, was out of town for a 30th birthday trip arranged by his girlfriend (she hasn't learned yet to check the SJSU schedule ahead of time).
So I stayed home, cosied up to the laptop and followed the action via espn360.com. I kept Geoff updated via text message, and the banter that followed wound up being a discussion and analysis of some of the obstacles and self-imposed problems plaguing this team during what has turned out to be a woeful season.
Nothing short of a miraculous turn around, which would include a few stunning upsets, can save this season and bring a level of success even close to what Tomey was touting prior to the season.
Rather than just drone on about it, the written phone conversation between Geoff and I Saturday night can spell it out in succinct fashion (samples provided, the entire thing would be hell on the B/R editors):
5:17PM (From Me)
Brandon Rutley is back, already has a good run on first play from scrimmage
5:20Pm (From Geoff)
Rutley needs to stay healthy
Brandon Rutley is a sophomore running back that was a pleasant surprise last year, and with his combination of speed and moves he could develop into a cornerstone of the Spartans' offense. But like every good Spartan player it seems lately, the injury bug had struck with Rutley. He missed a few previous games.
5:22PM (From Me)
SJSU forced a punt to start the game, then promptly marched downfield. La Secla looked good, they spread the ball between Rutley, Muldrow, Avery, Jurovich and then Harrison...err, I mean, Le Blanc Jr.
This was a summary of the first San Jose State drive, which was easily the most impressive of the season. For once, the defense looked as advertised, stopping the Vandals right away and forcing the punt.
Rutley and JC-transfer RB Lamon Muldrow has some nice runs, receivers Marquis Avery and Kevin Jurovich made some nice downfield grabs, and sophomore wideout Josh Harrison scored on a nifty pass from emerging Spartan QB Jordan La Secla. There was no reason to think the Spartans weren't settling in on a competent if not successful night of football following this drive.
The "Le Blanc Jr" reference is to former Spartan wideout Casey Le Blanc from the late 90s-early 2000s, who wore the same number, had the same build, and was also a super-fast short white dude, like Harrison.
5:24PM (From Geoff)
I hope they can solidify their place in the WAC with a big win tonight. Surprisingly, this would be a big conference win.
5:28PM (From Me)
Nevada crushed LA Tech last night so they might not be as advertised. A shot at third or fourth in the WAC could be at stake tonight.
Basically, we're not delusional like many other college football fans. We know our place, or more importantly, the place of our team. A third place finish in the WAC would mean a bowl birth, and the fourth place team could sneak into an at-large bid. Having only one bowl birth in the last 20 or so years, it's a big deal in Sparta just to make the post season. With Nevada dropping Louisiana Tech like a bad habit, the winner of this game had a head start on post-season contention.
5:34 (From Me)
Idaho just tried a little wildcat with 2nd and goal and the motion guy ran right into the RB taking the snap and knocked him down. They settled for a field goal.
The Spartan defense seemed to be in bend-but-not-break mode, and I was content to watch Idaho kick field goals all night given the way our offense had stormed down the field in their first possession. I was also hoping the Vandals would keep up with the sloppy play, but as I would find out, their head coach, Robb Akey, wasn't about to let that happen.
5:40 (From Me)
Idaho apparently forgot how Jurovich shredded them last time they were here. He's open all day.
Another good sign, and Jurovich was so wide open that the announcers on the Idaho broadcast (which I was stuck with) were baffled at how open SJSU's top playmaker was to start the game.
5:41 (From Me)
La Secla opened with Eight straight completions, but they just punted. Downed at the two.
Having to punt wasn't great, but the composure of the Spartans' junior quarterback was, not to mention special teams appeared to be on point.
5:47 (From Me)
Our defense looks like sh*t. No pressure, they are running and passing at will between the 10s.
The start of a frustrating trend. SJSU's defense is supposed to be the Silicon Valley version of Tomey's old "Desert Swarm," yet this season they have been anything but. And Idaho was starting to really expose it.
5:50PM (From Me)
Just held them on third, but Duke Ihenacho just went hands to the face on the QB for a 15-yard penalty. Ball on the 20.
Great, so not only is the defense already starting to cave, they left their composure in the locker room...
5:57PM (From Me)
Touchdown Vandals, extra point blocked.
Idaho plowed their way through the SJSU defense en route to an early lead.
5:57PM (From Geoff)
Romantic dinner time, so I can't write back, but please keep the updates coming.
So I'm on my own. But who am I kidding, if he was even able to check the phone during the romantic dinner and follow the game that's pretty impressive. Later on I would text him that Idaho was marching up and down the field. And I was starting to get used to it.
Fortunately, I was able to inform Geoff that the Vandals had fumbled into the endzone, and San Jose State recovered. So while the defense was starting to cave, the offense was holding their own, and the lucky breaks seemed to be coming our way...SEEMED to be.
I was able to send him this gem at 6:22:
La Secla with a sweet td run from the 10. Started the drive with a sick run as well. They marched with help from some penalties. Play calling is really coming together and La Secla is running the hurry-up offense really well.
At this point, I was not only feeling upbeat about our new starting QB, but the fact that he's a junior. Plus, new offensive coordinator Terry Malley seemed to finally have his crew in synch.
After a Peyton Thompson interception that put the Spartans at mid-field, I had to break this to him:
Had a completion inside the 10 with 20 seconds, but they called Avery with PI for having the nerve to block downfield. Pushed them back to the 40.
The refs flat out screwed the Spartans here. Even the Vandals game crew (which I found to be quite fair and honest) said Idaho got a break with this bogus call, which led to...
La Secla just made his first bad pass of the half. Idaho picks it off, takes it to field goal range. 52-yard fg as time expires, 14-12 Spartans at half. We get the ball.
Looking back, the PI call on Avery really came back to haunt the Spartans. Rather than kicking a field goal themselves, they were backed up and forced to air it out, leading to a six-point swing that would prove to be the difference.
Beginning with the third quarter, when Idaho came out of the half on fire and proceeded to slap the Spartans up and down their home turf, the texts slowed down and took a more dejected tone.
It was an all-too familiar scene: San Jose State plays a tight first half and, for the most part, produces some quality football--only to come out of halftime deflated and get pounced on by the other team. But normally, it's Ohio State, Stanford, Utah, Boise State, USC even, pouncing on the Spartans. Not IDAHO...
In fact, the most notable text of the third quarter was short, yet spoke volumes:
They just showed Tomey on the sideline looking like he's well past his bed time. And I thought he was on Hawaii time...?
Look, don't get me wrong, Dick Tomey is a phenomenal college football coach who is best known for getting maximum results out of talent-challenged teams. He's the savior of our program, and lends it about its only shred of credibility.
But he's into his 70s, and given the 1-4 start to this season, I can't help but think the New Mexico Bowl in 2006 was his peak as a Spartan. They've regressed. And I'm starting to pay attention to some of the sentiment out there within Sparta that Tomey is more interested in combing the sandy beaches of Hawaii during recruiting season than chasing down recruits.
Later on I would fill him in on how the Idaho announcers were constantly "jocking" their offensive line, when they should have been criticizing SJSU's defensive line for their impotent play. One thing I did agree with the Vandal crew on was them ripping Spartan receiver Jalal Beauchmann for a series of dropped passes, something I've become used to seeing. When the ball flies his way, I tend to really hold my breath.
The fourth quarter started to pick up, but not before I informed Geoff that the three-star QB recruit from San Jose that had committed to the Spartans last fall, then de-committed and followed their offensive coordinator to Wyoming, lit it up for the Cowboys that day. Beautiful...
But the fourth quarter saw the score tied up at 22 following a sweet La Secla to Avery hookup for a touchdown. The topper was Beauchmann catching the two-pt conversion to knot it up at 22. Unfortunately, him making important catches would not become a trend...
Idaho was marching but our boy Tanner Burns picked one off and took it back to their territory. They are in a position to start running away with the game if they can score a TD.
Man, even as I wrote it I worried that I was jinxing the Spartans. Did I ever. Burns, the son of defensive coordinator Keith Burns and one of our favorite emerging Spartans, snagged a pass from Idaho QB Nathan Enderle, one of his three picks on the day. Being that they had just kicked a field goal to move ahead 25-22, SJSU was in full control. All they needed was to score another TD, and the game might well of been out of reach right then. But...
Idaho holds, Spartans fail to convert on fourth and 12. Idaho ball on the 35. Beauchmann dropped the fourth down pass by the way.
And thus, just two minutes after SJSU took the ball away from Idaho, I was unknowingly filling Geoff in on the beginning of the end. The Vandals promptly marched downfield, running the ball on all but one play (with their backup quarterback in the game no less) and basically punked the Spartans on their way to a score with just 1:10 left on the clock.
The San Jose State identity under Dick Tomey—the staunch defense that has made it a competitive team over the last four seasons and produced three NFL draft picks just last season—seemed to disappear right before the eyes of Sparta in this game.
And thus, the updates culminated in this:
La Secla throws a duck up, its picked off. The offense was otherwise real good, this one falls on the defense IMO.
Never expected to be saying that about San Jose State, but it was the easiest conclusion to come to.
The Spartan defense, which to its credit has been struck by injuries, played sloppy, inept, undisciplined football. And for a team that was supposed to be relying on its defense this season while the new offensive coordinator tried to bring his unit up to speed, it has spelled disaster.
Credit should be given to Idaho and Coach Akey. The turnaround he has made this season, especially given the peril the program was in when Dennis Erickson bolted for Arizona State three years ago, has been remarkable.
The Vandals have now beaten San Jose State, Colorado State, and Northern Illinois—all on the road—en route to a 5-1 record. No big deal to a BCS conference program, but a major accomplishment for a team that could mostly only beat FCS schools in recent years.
San Jose State, on the other hand, appears to be headed in the opposite direction of the Vandals. Brutal out-of-conference schedule aside, the Spartan barely handled FCS Cal Poly for three quarters at home two weeks ago and let a team it has regularly dominated march into their stadium and steal a victory that was nearly locked up.
Sure, the Spartans have a promising quarterback on their hands, to go with some promising running backs in an offense now being run by the most competent offensive coach San Jose State has had since Dave Baldwin was at the helm.
But what good is an improved offense when it now has to pick up the slack of a sagging defense?
As for the game texts, they ended in almost the same depressing fashion as the game itself:
10:44PM (From Geoff)
I think they needed to win today just to assure 4 wins. They could (bleeping) lose to Utah State this year if they try hard enough
No offense Aggie fans, we know your team has made some improvements too. And that's even more reason for pessimism in San Jose this season.