It's been 55 years since the San Jose State Spartans can lay claim to a 4-0 start in a football season. That can change late Saturday with a win in a Mountain West meeting with the visiting — and winless — UNLV Rebels at CEFCU Stadium.
But it'll have to happen for the Spartans — likely — without the help of their senior quarterback.
Nick Starkel, the conference's most accurate quarterback so far in 2020, was knocked out of last week's 28-17 win over San Diego State, and his status for the meeting with UNLV is up in the air with an undisclosed injury.
While San Jose State went on without him to win its third straight — all at home — to start the COVID-shortened campaign, Starkel's contributions to the program can't be ignored. Starkel, the graduate transfer from Arkansas who started his career at Texas A&M, engineered the Spartans to a sparkling first three games — which include victories over Air Force and New Mexico — with a 58-of-79, 706-yard effort on the season. Starkel's 73.4 completion percentage is tops in the Mountain West, and his seven touchdown throws are second-best.
For the Rebels, a Spartans team without Starkel could open the door to getting off the schneid. They are without a win to start the strange 2020 season, having lost twice at home — to Fresno State, 40-27 last week, and previously to Nevada — and once on the road — to San Diego State.
The eyeball test, however, has them improving weekly, with 402 total yards put up last week in a loss that saw two fourth-quarter interceptions stuff their chance to win. And UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo is continuing to preach the positive heading into the contest against his alma mater.
"We've got to make sure to go back as a group and don't let the guys get too high or low," Arroyo told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "That's part of a culture, as far as how you build it and teach guys how to handle success and defeat. It's going back and making sure we can point out (mistakes) and how we can improve them."
The Spartans lead the all-time series 16-7-1, although the Rebels have won two of their last three matchups, including a come-from-behind 38-35 win last season.
UNLV at San Jose State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 14 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: San Jose State -15.5
When UNLV Has the Ball
The Rebels have their own senior quarterback to turn to these days, and Max Gilliam is truly a force both with his arm and legs. On the season, Gilliam is 55-of-92 for 472 yards and four touchdowns. But his fumble and two interceptions last week hurt UNLV's charge to get in the win column despite a solid outing by the QB. He was 15-of-31 for 160 yards and one TD and added 139 more yards rushing.
And then there are sack issues for the offense, with Gilliam having been taken down 13 times for a loss of 75 yards through three games. Ouch.
What the Rebels need to help remedy any pressure on Gilliam is a heavy dose of the "Chuck Wagon" against San Jose State. Indeed, senior running back Charles Williams is the key to the UNLV attack having run for 268 yards on the year despite rolling up just 89 in last week's loss.
"Philosophically, we like balance in our offense," Arroyo told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "(Williams) is a big piece of that. I thought we did a nice job with some balance things in the first half (last week)."
Season-long, they've found balance across the receiving corps with just two receivers — junior Tyleek Collins and freshman Kyle Williams — counting more than 100 yards total. Nine others have caught at least a pass, while five — including Collins and Williams — have at least eight receptions. That's spreading it out.
And it's not a bad blueprint against a Spartans defense that has proven to be bend but don't break. The Spartans rank 39th nationally in total defense (367.7 ypg) but 11th in scoring defense (14.7 ppg).
"Our defense just kept showing up last week," San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan told reporters of a unit led by the Mountain West's leading tackler (42) in junior linebacker Kyle Harmon. "(It was) such a big win for us."
When San Jose State Has the Ball
With Starkel likely down and out, the ball falls to sophomore quarterback Nick Nash. He came on last week and acquitted himself well in going 16-of-25 with two touchdowns and one interception. Nash added 53 rushing yards as part of a team-high 83 on the season.
The best part of Nash's performance, however, was the win to keep the Spartans perfect so far. A big part of that is the perfection is red-zone success, as they've turned all nine trips into points, including seven for touchdowns. So Nash kept up his end of the bargain in Starkel's absence.
"Some things we like to call with Nick Nash are different than what we like to call with Nick Starkel," Brennan told reporters of Nash's athletic ability vs. Starkel's pocket presence. "It's fun to see (former safety Nash's) development as a player. I think he’s got an incredibly high ceiling, and his future is extremely bright."
Nash has a ton of experience around him to help him in his journey.
The team's top three pass catchers are all seniors — No. 1 target Bailey Gaither has 21 catches for 338 yards, fellow receiver Tre Walker has caught 18 balls for 215 yards, and tight end Derrick Deese Jr. led the club with five grabs for 76 yards last week.
And they'll need them all against the pressure defense that UNLV has enjoyed. Sophomore linebacker Jacoby Windmon and sophomore defensive lineman Adam Plant Jr. have 3.5 and 2.5 sacks, respectively, on the season.
"They're playing really, really hard," Brennan told reporters of the opponent's defense. "Defensively, they run to the football. It's obvious on tape. Even when I talked to the coaches from San Diego State last week, they were like, 'Hey, those guys are playing hard in Vegas.'"
The San Jose State run game, meanwhile, is spread out among senior Tyler Nevens (73 yards) and sophomores Kairee Robinson (66) and Isaiah Holiness (49). They could have a field day against a Rebels defense that ranks 106th nationally and ninth in the Mountain West at 225.7 rushing yards allowed per game.
Everything's been going right for San Jose State. While it wasn't a sparkling offensive performance last week — only 298 total yards — the Spartans still got the job done to extend their perfect start without Starkel at the helm. And their first 4-0 start since 1955 seems to be in the offing against a winless Rebels side.
But the Spartans could be ripe for the picking in a push for ever-improving UNLV to find the triumph and right the season. Could be... but won't be in the end.
Prediction: San Jose State 32, UNLV 28
(Top photo courtesy of @SanJoseStateFB)