It likely goes without saying that the 2020 college football season has been weird, but the San Jose State Spartans have gone through a stranger period than most in recent weeks. The Spartans haven't played since Nov. 14 (a 34-17 win over UNLV) due to COVID-related cancelations for previously scheduled games against Fresno State and Boise State, respectively. Then, San Jose State's previously scheduled home game against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors was put into limbo after a ban on contact sports in Santa Clara County.
After an attempt to relocate the game to a neutral site (reportedly in Las Vegas) fell through midweek, it was moved to Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, where Brent Brennan's squad will put its 4-0 record at risk. Thanks to Hawaii's 24-21 upset victory over Nevada last week, San Jose State is the only remaining undefeated team in the Mountain West. The Rainbow Warriors snapped a two-game skid to improve to 3-3 under first-year head coach Todd Graham.
San Jose State at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5, at 6 p.m. ET
TV: Spectrum Sports PPV (in Hawaii)/Team1Sports App (elsewhere)
Spread: San Jose State -2.0
When San Jose State Has the Ball
Former Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel arrived in San Jose (following a one-year sojourn at Arkansas) and has quickly become one of the best quarterbacks in the Mountain West. Starkel has completed 70.1 percent of his passes for 980 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions in four starts this year and is averaging 9.2 yards per pass attempt, which ranks second in the conference and among the top 20 nationally. Nick Nash completed 16 of 25 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns and one interception against San Diego State when Starkel was sidelined early by an injury. Nash is a dynamic runner, having gained a team-high 177 yards on the ground with one touchdown across four games, and will likely see action Saturday.
Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker give the Spartans one of the top receiving duos in the Mountain West. Gaither leads the team with 27 receptions, 432 yards, and four touchdowns, and his 108.0 receiving yards per game ranks second in the conference. Walker also ranks among the top 10 in the league with 66.3 receiving yards per game, having caught 22 passes for 265 yards with two TDs. Derrick Deese Jr. has been a pleasant surprise and ranks third in the conference among tight ends with 36.3 receiving yards per game and three touchdowns.
Kairee Robinson has been the primary ball carrier for the Spartans but has gained just 106 rushing yards with one touchdown on 36 attempts (2.9 yards per carry). Senior Tyler Nevens has gained 118 yards with two touchdowns on 23 carries, and receiver Isaiah Holiness has run for 49 yards on 16 attempts, all of which occurred in the team's first two games.
When Hawaii Has the Ball
Calvin Turner Jr. was an unknown when he committed to Hawaii in December 2019. An option quarterback at Jacksonville University, Turner was forced to find another place — and another primary position — to play when the Dolphins program shut down. Turner, who began his collegiate career on defense, was originally expected to play defensive back for the Rainbow Warriors under former head coach Nick Rolovich but has instead found a role as a do-everything offensive playmaker under Todd Graham. He leads the team with 369 receiving yards and five touchdowns, and his 25 receptions are one fewer than team leader Jared Smart (242 yards, TD). Turner also takes handoffs out of the backfield, as well as short-yardage snaps at quarterback (including one incomplete pass attempt), and has run for 198 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries. He also has returned four kickoffs for 108 yards. Turner's playmaking ability and all-around skill set now has the attention of NFL scouts.
But Turner isn't the only multi-talented playmaker Graham inherited. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,457 yards and nine touchdowns with four interceptions, and he unexpectedly leads the team with 326 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 85 carries. Cordeiro threw for 410 yards and four touchdowns in the win over New Mexico — a stat line similar to what we would expect in the previous coaching staff's Run-and-Shoot offense — but put together arguably his most impressive performance against Nevada with 246 yards and one touchdown on 26-for-32 passing (a season-high 81.3 percent completion rate) with 62 yards and one score on the ground.
Miles Reed ran for 109 yards on 21 attempts in the season opener but has been limited to seven carries or fewer in each of the next four games. Reed found the end zone for the first time last week and gained 31 yards on 15 carries against the Wolf Pack. He also has caught 13 passes for 88 yards. In addition to Smart, who was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2019, Rico Bussey (22 receptions, 195 yards), Nick Mardner (9 receptions, 173 yards, 1 touchdown), Melquise Stovall (14 receptions, 101 yards), and Jonah Panoke (8 yards, 62 receptions) have all shown flashes but lack consistency as a unit.
San Jose State can match its 2019 win total with a victory Saturday, and the Spartans have the weapons to push Hawaii's defense. The Rainbow Warriors are the only unit to shut down Nevada's star wide receiver Romeo Doubs, holding him to just one catch for 10 yards, but Hawaii allowed more than 200 rushing yards and six yards per play to the Wolf Pack - the fourth time in six games opponents have reached those marks. Overall, Hawaii has allowed 5.9 yards per snap, which ranks ninth in the conference and 79th nationally, and has yet to hold an opponent to fewer than five yards per play in a game.
Conversely, the Spartans have limited opponents to five yards (4.99 exactly) per play this season, which ranks 20th in the country. Three of San Jose State's four opponents failed to reach five yards per play, and none have surpassed six. It's also important to understand that while the Spartans have had two consecutive games canceled, reports indicate it was their opponents who were most impacted. There could be some rust associated with the layoff, and the late change of venue is certainly a factor, but San Jose State has one of the most improved defenses in the country and has played like a legitimate Mountain West championship contender. Hawaii proved to Nevada how difficult it can be to leave Aloha Stadium undefeated, but the Spartans have what it takes to do just that.
Prediction: San Jose State 33, Hawaii 28
Podcast: Coaching Carousel and Week 14 Preview and Predictions
(Top photo courtesy of sjsuspartans.com)