Heading into Week Three of the college football season, San Jose State's schedule eases up—ever so slightly.
For the first time in 2009, the Spartans won't be facing a team that won a BCS bowl game last season, but it's a small consolation considering they'll be on the road against a Stanford squad that has dominated them two years in a row.
As early as it is in the year, this could be a make or break game for Head Coach Dick Tomey and San Jose State. Week One featured a crushing, demoralizing defeat at the hands of USC; Week Two saw the Spartans threaten to hand Utah its first defeat since 2007, only to let it slip away late in the game.
If Week Three turns out anything like the last two times San Jose State played Stanford, a Week Four victory against FCS Cal Poly could come into question.
Coming off a 2006 season in which they were 9-4 and won their first bowl game in nearly 20 years, the Spartans were confident going into their 2007 game against the Cardinal.
They had overcome a 20-point deficit to beat Stanford 35-34 early the previous season, a game that in large part got the momentum rolling for the team's success in '06.
The Cardinal squashed that confidence in quick fashion, manhandling the Spartans 37-0 in a game that, similar to the year before, set the tone for San Jose State's mediocre 5-7 season.
Next season's matchup didn't turn out much better, as the Spartans remained close for much of the game before Stanford's pass rush, and single-season rushing leader Toby Gerhart, took over in the second half on the way to a decisive 23-10 victory.
For San Jose State to have a chance in this game, they'll need to not only overcome two straight disappointing losses to start '09, but also two straight losses to their South Bay rivals, in which Stanford established a measure of dominance over the Spartans.
The keys to a San Jose State victory are rather simple—on paper. The execution could be the tough part against a Cardinal squad that has improved leaps and bounds since Jim Harbaugh took over.
Key No. 1: Establish an Offensive Rhythm, Ball Control
The Spartans made some noticeable offensive improvements from Week One to Week Two, though the drop off from USC to Utah may have been the difference. While they had no offensive consistency to speak, San Jose State finally started to move the ball last week.
Unlike the game against USC, in which quarterbacks Kyle Reed and Jordan La Secla split playing time evenly, Tomey chose to go with the hot hand in La Secla against the Utes.
The junior finished 21-33 for 242 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, in probably the most respectable passing game a Spartan quarterback has had since Adam Trafalis graduated in 2007.
Tomey has named La Secla the starter for Week Three, and indicated there will not be a sharing of reps. This could be the right step toward establishing some much-needed consistency in the Spartans' re-tooled offense.
La Secla preformed well in the short and intermediate passing game against Utah, and receivers Kevin Jurovich (seven catches, 113 yards) and Marquis Avery (seven catches, 85 yards) made for great targets.
A heavy dose of Avery and Jurovich, and an improving running game with a rotation of the Spartans' serviceable backs, could provide the ball control the defense will need to keep up with Stanford's offense. Protection up front will be vital, as the Cardinal pass rush got to Reed eight times last year.
Key No. 2: Get to Stanford's Freshman Quarterback
Stanford has one of the most promising young passers in the Pac-10, if not all of college football, in redshirt freshman Andrew Luck. So does USC with Matt Barkley, whom the Spartans managed to frustrate for much of the first half in Week One.
If San Jose State's defense can play the way they did the first half against USC for an entire game against Stanford, they'll be in a position to win down the stretch.
The Spartans lost some speed on the edge against Utah, when defensive end Mohamed Marah went down possibly for the season.
All-WAC defensive end Carl Ihenacho will have to pick up even more of the slack for the Spartans in their effort to get to Luck, and his brother Duke will need to step his game up in the secondary to prevent big plays like the 51-yard touchdown pass Utah completed to break that game open.
Key No. 3: Contain Toby Gerhart
Stanford's single-season rushing leader was nearly unstoppable in the second half of last season's game, providing the final nail in the Spartans' coffin down the stretch in that defeat.
To suggest the Spartans will stop him is rather optimistic, but containing him would keep them in line for a win.
San Jose State had a solid warm up for Gerhart last week and made the most of it, holding Utah's talented back Matt Asiata to 94 yards on 20 carries and no scores.
With Gerhart playing such a vital role to Stanford's offense, keeping him under 100 yards and scoreless limits the entire offense, which is still looking to establish some other playmakers.
However, if they are unable to contain Gerhart, it could wind up three in a row for the Cardinal. Last season's game saw him rumble for 152 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown, in an offense run by this season's backup quarterback.
Fortunately for the Spartans, the number of offensive threats they face keeps going down week by week, and in the third week they'll be able to keep most of their focus on one.
In short, any chance the Spartans have at winning on The Farm rests with a combination of their offense's ability to control the football long enough to keep Gerhart off the field—and their own defense being rested enough to pursue him when he is on it.
The last six games of this series has been won on the home field, an advantage self-righteous Stanford has no plans of giving up—despite this series being a matchup of two schools legendary coach Bill Walsh was a part of.
There may be no better way to reverse momentum for the '09 season than for San Jose State to defeat Stanford on its own field.
After all, Stanford's refusal to play an even series and split home field advantage played a role in San Jose State's choice to drop them from the 2010 schedule in favor of traveling to Alabama. An extra year of bragging rights as winners of the Bill Walsh Legacy Game would be extra sweet for the Spartans.