Fresno State and San Jose State will renew their rivalry in "The Battle for the Valley Trophy" on Thanksgiving Day in front of a national cable audience on FS1. Playing on Thanksgiving is another aggressive step forward by the Mountain West Conference as the league continues to increase its exposure to the product through partnerships with FOX and CBS.
The Bulldogs (8-3, 5-2 MW) are still alive for the West Division title. They need a win over the Spartans and then for San Diego State to lose to Boise State on Friday. That would tie both teams at 6-2 in the conference, but Fresno State owns the tiebreaker thanks to a 30-20 win over the Aztecs on Oct. 30. San Jose State (5-6, 3-4) won't get to defend its Mountain West title, but the Spartans need a win to become bowl eligible.
The Bulldogs are coming off of a convincing 34-7 win over New Mexico. Jake Haener threw for 300 yards, and the defense did the rest, holding the Lobos to 196 total yards, only 34 of those coming through the air. Fresno State was dominant on third down, going 10-for-17 when it had the ball while limiting New Mexico to 3-for-12. Despite the runaway victory, the Bulldogs weren't able to run the ball (averaged 2.4 yards per carry) and committed 10 penalties for 79 yards, so there are some things that need to be cleaned up.
As for San Jose State, the Spartans are coming off of their worst loss of the season, a 48-17 rout at home courtesy of Utah State. The offense generated just 150 yards, including 12 on the ground. SJSU also converted just one of 12 third-down opportunities and turned the ball over three times. It will be fascinating to see how this team responds to head coach Brent Brennan and bounces back in this rivalry game with bowl eligibility on the line.
These two teams didn't play each other last year because of COVID-19 issues. Fresno State maintains a slight 42-38-3 edge overall, although San Jose State won the last meeting, 17-16 at home in 2019.
Fresno State at San Jose State
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Fresno State -9
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Head coach Kalen DeBoer needs to put his quarterback in a position to attack the Spartans right away. Haener is second to Nevada's Carson Strong in the Mountain West in passing yards (3,467), touchdowns (28), and completion rate (66.8 percent), so it makes sense to funnel the offense through him. Additionally, San Jose State's defense has given up 19 touchdown passes compared to just six interceptions, so Haener should be able to find open receivers.
Jalen Cropper has been Haener's favorite target. He's fifth in the conference in catches (69) and is tied for the lead in touchdown grabs with 10. Nine other Bulldogs have caught at least one TD from Haener this season, so he's not afraid to spread the ball around either.
The ground game has been inconsistent, but both Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims are capable of putting up big numbers. Collectively, they are averaging 5.2 yards per carry with nine rushing touchdowns. Even though Haener has been so productive, anything the backfield can provide would make this Fresno State offense even more dangerous.
One thing the Spartans must do a better job of is limiting the explosive plays, especially through the air. Last week, Utah State averaged 13.2 yards per completion (20-of-34 for 264 yds.) and gave up a couple of plays that went for 40-plus yards. Fresno State leads the Mountain West with 10 plays of 50-plus yards.
One thing is for sure: expect San Jose State linebacker Kyle Harmon to be in the middle of all the action when he's on the field. Tied for second in the nation with 123 tackles, Harmon racked up 18 stops in the loss to the Aggies.
When San Jose State Has the Ball
The best weapon for the Spartans this week could be playing keep away from the dynamic Fresno State offense. When San Jose State has been at its best this season, the running game has set the tone for the passing game. For example, against Wyoming, the offensive line handled their business at the point of attack, and the Spartans rushed for 237 yards at 6.4 yards per carry in their 27-21 win.
Tyler Nevens is the leading ground-gainer with 711 yards and seven touchdowns, but Kairee Robinson (245 yds.) also has gotten some touches. When he's been on the field, quarterback Nick Nash has provided an extra element to the ground game with his legs, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
Speaking of quarterbacks, starter Nick Starkel must be smart with the football when he throws it and avoid the critical turnover. He's missed some time due to an arm injury and hasn't been able to find his good rhythm. He's completing only 53 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games.
Overall, San Jose State has been very sloppy with the football. The Spartans are dead last in the Mountain West and 126th nationally in turnover margin at minus-11. Fresno State's defense will no doubt try and take advantage of this tendency since the Bulldogs have generated 20 takeaways through 10 games.
Fresno State has been hard to run against this season, holding teams 133.1 rushing yards per game and only 3.7 yards per carry. The defense has done a great job of making stops behind the line of scrimmage, ranking second in the conference with 81 tackles for a loss. This unit also has produced 10 interceptions (vs. 15 TD passes allowed) between six different players recording, as Evan Williams leading the way with three. Up front, the defensive line trio of Arron Mosby, David Perales, and Kevin Atkins has done a good job of wreaking havoc with a collective 34 tackles for a loss and 16 sacks.
Rivalry games are always a bit unpredictable, and San Jose State comes into this one with the Battle of the Valley Trophy still in its possession. Fresno State is very much in the mix for a spot in the Mountain West title game, needing a win and some help from Boise State against San Diego State on Friday. The Spartans need a win to have any shot at a bowl game, so motivation will not be an issue for either team, which means this game will boil down to execution and whether the Bulldogs capitalize on their talent advantage.
The early local (12:30 p.m.) kickoff time could have an impact on how this game starts, so don't be surprised if it's ragged early. But once both teams settle down, Fresno State should be able to flex its muscles on both sides of the ball. Bulldogs will take care of business on the road and revert to scoreboard-watching on Friday.