Spartans, Broncos meet in Boise on Saturday for control of the Mountain West race
Two important Mountain West Conference games have gotten a huge national profile this month. One week after Nevada hosted San Diego State on network television, a pivotal clash in the conference title race will be broadcast to a huge national audience Saturday when the reigning champion Boise State Broncos host the undefeated San Jose State Spartans.
Boise State improved to 4-1 overall and 4-0 in conference play with its 40-32 victory over Hawaii — a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate. San Jose State remained at 4-0 due to an unexpected weekend off when its game against Fresno State was canceled due to COVID protocols. The announcement allowed the Spartans a few extra prep days in the race to keep pace with Nevada atop the Mountain West standings.
San Jose State at Boise State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 28, at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Boise State -11
When San Jose State Has the Ball
Former Texas A&M and Arkansas quarterback Nick Starkel quickly emerged as the starting quarterback at San Jose State this fall. Starkel, who missed a significant portion of the San Diego State game due to injury, has appeared in all four games this season, completing 70.1 percent of his passes for 980 yards, nine touchdowns, and two interceptions. The senior has been a big-play performer, averaging 9.2 yards per pass attempt, which ranks second in the conference and among the top 20 in the country. However, despite his success, Starkel has shared duties with the more mobile Nick Nash. Nash leads the Spartans with 177 rushing yards on 26 carries and has scored once on the ground. He is 18-for-28 for 190 passing yards with two touchdowns and one interception overall, compiling most of those numbers in relief of Starkel against the Aztecs.
Outside of Nash, the Spartans have split carries among running backs Tyler Nevens and Kairee Robinson and receiver Isaiah Holiness. Nevens leads the team with two rushing touchdowns after scoring in back-to-back games and has gained 118 yards on 23 attempts (5.13 per carry). Robinson leads with 36 carries but has averaged just 2.94 yards per attempt, giving him 106 yards and one touchdown. Holiness earned 16 carries across the first two games of the season, on which he gained 49 yards. He has also caught seven passes for 76 yards. Nevens and Robinson have combined for 32 receiving yards on seven receptions.
Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker give San Jose State one of the top receiving duos in the Mountain West. Gaither leads the Spartans and ranks among the top four in the league in each triple crown category, catching 27 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns. Walker is close behind with 265 yards and two touchdowns among his 22 catches. Tight end Derrick Deese Jr. has been a pleasant surprise as a receiver, grabbing 10 passes for 145 yards and three scores. Isaiah Hamilton has chipped in with 111 yards and one touchdown among his six receptions.
When Boise State Has the Ball
Hank Bachmeier is the unquestioned starting quarterback for the Broncos, but he has also been forced to give up the reins at times this season. Bachmeier has completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns with only one interception while averaging 8.6 yards per attempt across three starts. Unfortunately, he was unavailable against both Air Force and BYU due to COVID protocols. USC transfer Jack Sears completed 23 of 27 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns across those two games but left early against the Cougars due to injury and has not played since, leaving Cade Fennegan (182 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) as Bachmeier's top backup.
The Broncos have also been forced to play without top running back George Holani in multiple games. Holani ran for 1,014 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman in 2019 but has been limited to 105 yards — all but five of them coming against Utah State in the opener — and one touchdown on just 16 carries this season. With Holani unavailable, Andrew Van Buren has become the top ball carrier with 277 yards and seven touchdowns on 75 carries. Danny Smith (38 yards on 12 carries) and receiver Khalil Shakir (114 rushing yards on 11 carries) are the only other available players who have reached double-digit rushing attempts. There's a chance Holani could return this week, but Van Buren has proven dependable and productive and would help ease Holani back into the lineup when he's deemed healthy enough to play.
Shakir is Boise State's top target in the passing game as well and leads the Mountain West with 38 receptions, on which he's recorded a team-leading 529 yards and six touchdowns. Only Nevada's Romeo Doubs, who has 778 yards and nine touchdowns on 36 catches, has been more productive among pass-catchers in the conference. And given the national spotlight this week, Shakir could elevate his status among college football fans and NFL Draft decision-makers, as Doubs has. Fellow wideout CT Thomas (16 rec., 312 yds., 2 TDs) and tight ends John Bates (12, 117) and Riley Smith (9, 87, TD) round out the primary receiving corps.
The sample size is small, but early returns are clear: San Jose State is one of the most improved teams in the country. The Spartans have made significant growth on defense. After allowing 31.9 points and 443.8 total yards per game last season (including 232.1 rushing yards per contest) on 5.80 yards per play, San Jose State has held opponents to a Mountain West-best 15.3 points per game. Opponents have gained 349.3 total yards per contest (131.5 on the ground) and 4.99 yards per play — both of which rank among the top 35 nationally.
Meanwhile, Boise State has shown some regression defensively. In 2019, the Broncos allowed 21.9 points per game, 346.3 total yards per contest, and 5.22 yards per play and ranked 15th in FBS in rushing defense (112.7). This year, opponents have scored 29.4 points and gained 393.8 yards per game, as well as 5.45 yards per snap. The unit now ranks 99th in the country in rushing defense (203.8).
Nevertheless, Boise State is comfortable on a big stage and incredibly tough to beat at home. The Broncos have won 27 of their last 30 games on "The Blue" at Albertsons Stadium. San Jose State has never won there — which is pretty obvious since the Spartans have never beaten Boise State. There may be a first time for everything, especially in 2020, but it's still difficult to imagine San Jose State leaving Boise with a win Saturday.
Prediction: Boise State 35, San Jose State 23
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