Surging Spartans look to keep momentum going in Mountain West opener against Falcons
Friday night's matchup between San Jose State and Air Force is a Mountain West crossover pairing that offers a bit of role reversal. The Spartans come into this one off of a win, while the Falcons are the team looking to bounce back from a loss.
San Jose State, who went 3-22 the past two seasons, upset Arkansas 31-24 in Fayetteville last week. It was the Spartans' first-ever victory against an SEC team and first over a Power 5 program since beating Stanford in 2006.
Meanwhile, Air Force fell 30-19 at Boise State last Friday. The Falcons ran for 242 yards, which was 100 under their season average entering that game. Air Force is still fourth in the country in rushing offense (316.3 ypg), which will be San Jose State's primary focus on defense. The Spartans did a good job in that department against Arkansas, holding the Razorbacks to 131 yards on 32 carries (4.1 ypc) and no touchdowns.
Both teams enter this game with identical 2-1 records. This is San Jose State's Mountain West opener while Air Force is already 0-1 in conference play. A victory Friday night in Colorado Springs would give the Spartans their first winning streak in five years (beat UNLV and Wyoming in 2014).
Air Force leads the all-time series 3-1, with San Jose State's lone victory coming at home in 1997. The Falcons won the most recent meeting, beating the Spartans 41-38 in 2016.
San Jose State at Air Force
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Air Force -19.5
When San Jose State Has the Ball
The win over Arkansas gave the Spartans plenty to celebrate. Perhaps it's also given them a reason to believe an offense that has only produced five wins in two-plus seasons, including two this year, under head coach Brent Brennan is on the upswing.
Senior QB Josh Love is coming off a career-best 32 completions and 402 passing yards against the Razorbacks. His 49 pass attempts were the most during Brennan's tenure. For the season, Brennan is completing 63 percent of his passes and averaging 272 yards per game.
His prime targets are wide receivers Tre Walker, a junior with 12 catches for 161 yards, freshman Isaiah Hamilton (13, 155), and senior Bailey Gaither (8, 124). The ground game is powered by running backs DeJon Parker and Tyler Nevens, who have combined for 229 yards on 54 carries, but the team's leading rusher thus far is backup QB Nick Nash. The freshman has 141 yards on just 17 attempts (8.3 ypc).
Air Force has been pretty good on the ground on both sides of the ball in the early going. The Falcons are third in the Mountain West (22nd nationally) at 91.7 rushing yards per game allowed. They held Boise State to just 95 yards last week and overall are limiting the opposition to three yards per carry.
Overall, Air Force is second in the conference in total defense (188.7 ypg) and has already faced the potent Broncos as well as Colorado from the Pac-12. San Jose State has to hope it can keep the momentum going after busting out for 503 yards in the win over Arkansas.
When Air Force Has the Ball
As has been mentioned already, Air Force loves to stay grounded. Only two other teams, fellow service academies Navy and Army, are averaging more than the Falcons' 56 rushing attempts per game.
Even with the slight hiccup last week in the loss to Boise State, Air Force's triple-option remains effective, averaging 316 rushing yards per game. Because of the run-heavy approach, Air Force quarterbacks have attempted just 26 passes in three games.
Instead, more than a dozen players have gotten multiple carries already as the ground attack has been led by running back Kadin Remsberg, fullback Taven Birdow, quarterback Donald Hammond III, and fullback Timothy Jackson.
Remsberg leads the team in both rushing yards (267) and carries (42). He's averaging 6.4 yards per attempt and is second with three rushing touchdowns. Hammond leads the way with five scores on the ground and is averaging nearly five yards (4.8) per carry. Birdow (214) and Jackson (108) are the other Falcons with more than 100 yards on the ground through three games.
San Jose State knows what's coming, it's just a matter of how much resistance the defense can put up. For the season, SJSU is allowing 166 rushing yards per game, are holding teams to less than four yards per carry, and have surrendered a total of three rushing touchdowns.
The Spartans' rush defense needs to perform more like it did last week against Arkansas (131 yards on 42 carries, 0 TDs) compared to two weeks ago vs. Tulsa (54, 256, 3).
San Jose State comes in with confidence — no doubt. But Air Force has something to prove after last week's loss at Boise State. The Falcons will stick to the game plan that has worked so well for them while the Spartans will try to build off of last week's huge win and take a page out of Boise State's playbook when it comes to defending the triple option.
However, preparing to stop and actually stopping Air Force's signature offense are two entirely different things.
Prediction: Air Force 31, San Jose State 20
(Top photo by Terrell Lloyd, courtesy of San Jose State Athletics)