Oregon State returns home Saturday evening to take on San Jose State from the Mountain West Conference. But the Beavers, and most Beaver fans, aren't exactly familiar with the Spartans.
Oregon State hasn't played San Jose State since 1997, and only 5 times ever, and other than the games against neighboring Stanford, the Spartans have only played 2 games against Pac-12 teams in the last 8 years. So Beaver fans haven't seen, and aren't very familiar with what they are up against this week.
To remedy that, we got with Jeremy Keown, who covers San Jose State for the Mt. West Connection, SB Nation's Mountain West Conference wide site, to get a scouting report.
Thanks, Jeremy for taking some time to educate us about the Spartans.
BTD: San Jose State has been running a 2 quarterback system, something Oregon State also was dealing with until Seth Collins separated himself from the competition a little later than might have been optimal. Junior Kenny Potter and senior Joe Gray have been splitting series for the Spartans in both their season opening 43-13 win over New Hampshire and last week's Mt. West Conference campaign opening 37-16 loss at Air Force, and it sounds like that will continue Saturday evening in Corvallis. Compare and contrast the two. What are each ones' strengths and their biggest challenges? Which one will start? Does it depend on which one is playing well, or how the game goes, as to who gets most of the meaningful series?
Jeremy: As I'm sure Oregon State fans know, not having a clear cut starter at your teams most important position can be detrimental. Personally, I've never been a fan of switching out quarterback's as I think it messes with teams cadences and the rhythm of the offense. With that said, it doesn't seem like this dilemma is going to change for a while with Head Coach Ron Caragher not sure who to give the nod to completely. With that said, there are a few different things with each player.
Joe Gray is the more pure passer out of the two. That's not to say that Potter is a bad passer by any means, but Gray doesn't quite have the running ability that Potter has to add to his arsenal. Again, Potter by no means is a bad passer. He was 13/14 for 167 yards against New Hampshire with an extra 45 yards rushing. I think the challenge for both is really just taking control of the offense. Usually this is the case when a coach can't decide between two quarterbacks. In the game against Air Force, both of them threw a fourth quarter interception that lead to touchdown's for Air Force, and Potter himself said that he should have been more patient on the play where he threw his interception.
It's really hard to say who will start, as both quarterbacks have made starts for this year, so it's just something that we'll have to wait towards the end of the week to find out. It really depends on how the game is progressing on who gets the most reps. If the starter against Oregon State isn't off to a good start, Caragher won't hesitate to pull him in for the other.
BTD: Building on that, tell us about the Spartans' passing game. Who are the receivers to watch? Tyler Winston statistically looks like the leading target, but no one seems to dominate the stat sheet?
Jeremy: Winston definitely is a big threat standing at 6'2" at 192, and he is leading the team in receptions and yards, but the Spartan passing game distributes the ball very well. The next three leading receivers after Winston are all within 4 receptions of each other on the year, and about a 10 yard difference. So it's not like whoever is playing quarterback is really looking to one guy every time, but has a few other options to choose from.
BTD: San Jose State appears to have a solid running back in Tyler Ervin, who has topped 120 rushing yards in both games this year. What is his style, and the nature of the rushing game in general?
Jeremy: Ervin definitely is the one who carries this offense, as he already has 248 yards, 7.75 YPC, and 4 touchdowns on the season. The run game is something that Caragher is really trying to establish, as his backup Thomas Tucker already has 2 touchdowns and quarterback Kenny Potter is the third leading rusher on the team behind the previous two. The run game in itself is very important to this team, as in the first two games the average number of rush attempts is 32.5. This isn't surprising with the quarterback struggles.
BTD: Offensive coordinator Al Borges, who has coached at 11 different colleges, including both Portland State and Oregon, as well as Boise State and California, is no stranger to Beaver fans. What sort of system is Al running at San Jose State?
Jeremy: Borges was given the offensive coordinator position for the Spartans after he held the same position at Michigan. The offense that he is trying to run is the West Coast offense. With this being his second year at San Jose, it is still taking some time (and recruiting the players that he needs) to get everything going the way he wants it.
BTD: Switching sides of the ball, tell us about the Spartan defense. What base scheme should Beaver fans expect to see? Who are the notable playmakers? What has been their strengths, and what gives them the most trouble? (The unit doesn't appear to be struggling too much; the loss to the Falcons was largely caused by interceptions both the San Jose State quarterbacks threw.)
Jeremy: The guy that Oregon State definitely needs to watch out for is junior linebacker Christian Tago. He is already leading the team in tackles with 21. You could really say him being knocked out of the game against Air Force (Tago suffered concussion-like symptoms after a helmet to helmet hit; his status is "probable" to return against Oregon State, contingent on post-concussion testing this week) is what really did them in, as Air Force scored on every possession after that. The strength of this team is definitely the pass defense. Although they only have one interception, they're averaging only giving up 100 yards per game, whereas New Hampshire rushed for 126 yards and Air Force rushed for 150, and they gave up 4 rushing touchdowns to Air Force alone. So if Oregon State can establish the run early, that'll really give the Spartans fits.
BTD: Is there a special teams game breaker to watch out for? In the likely event that this game is close late, given that the Oregon State offense has struggled to find game-long consistency, does San Jose State have the kicker and or punter, and general special teams ability, to pull out the win late?
Jeremy: As far as kick off returns, Tyler Ervin isn't much of a threat in that department. Michael Carrizosa is a pretty good punter, averaging 51.88 yards per punt. Senior kicker Austin Lopez has had a sporadic start to the year. His longest kick is only a 42 yarder, and he's had trouble with accuracy issues thus far. So if this game does come down to a last second field goal, don't think that the game is automatically over.
BTD: Looking at the bigger picture, coach Caragher has struggled to build on the success Mike MacIntyre had before moving up to Colorado. MacIntyre guided the Spartans to an 11-2 season and the Military Bowl, in 2012, and it looked like San Jose State had finally established itself as a force to be reckoned with. What went wrong, and why hasn't Caragher been able to keep the Spartans from sliding right back into their historic struggles? Is this a must-win, opportunity for a signature win, game for him?
Jeremy: Ron Caragher's first two season at San Jose certainly hasn't gone the way that he, or fans, have wanted it at just 10-16. I attribute a lot of his early woes with not only trying to establish his "system" and "culture" (they had to make roster cuts on some guys), but also to the turnover in the staff that he has had. Jimmie Dougherty, who is with the Spartans, actually had an offer to join Jim Harbaugh at Michigan as the OC. However, Jim backed off of that, but Caragher already hired Al Borges to be the new offensive coordinator. So there was this whole awkward situation amongst the three. Things like these can really add up and cause head coaches to have more losses in their first couple of years than what they should have.
BTD: That 11-2 campaign was the only winning season since 2006, and only the third this century. In an affluent (even given dot com calamities) and heavily populated area, one where there are lots of resources that can be leveraged, why hasn't San Jose State, which is not a small school, been able to elevate themselves even to the level of Mt. West rivals like Fresno State, Utah State, and Nevada, all of which are in less resource-rich positions? Is it a "[San] Jose State thing"? Or is there a larger cultural issue at work here?
Jeremy: That is a pretty tough question. I don't want to say it's a "San Jose State thing" or cultural issues, as football in California is definitely huge and deep with talent (although a lot of people in California are already USC, UCLA, Cal, or Stanford fans and so it's that much harder to gain support for another school that's not as popular in football). Some of the issues that really plague San Jose State are coaches leaving for bigger gigs (the last 3 coaches at most have been there for 4 years) so with a lot of coaching turnover, it's really hard to set a solid foundation to build upon.
Also, even though there are plenty of high end recruits in California, San Jose also has the disadvantage of having to recruit against a lot of other schools. In California alone, there are USC, Stanford, UCLA, Fresno State, and San Diego State (plus a plethora of other, smaller schools). Add in to that, outside of the state schools (particularly Oregon and Notre Dame, but plenty of other D-1 schools) really delve in to that talent pool of recruits. So San Jose doesn't have the advantage of having to fight off 1 or 2 in-state schools, but multiple, and with the way that recruiting is going these days, a lot of kids go elsewhere. It isn't necessarily as popular/common to stay home nowadays. So I really think these two issues really play a huge factor in why San Jose State just can't build up consistently.
BTD: Will that translate to nearly no Spartan blue in the stands Saturday night? Or is there a core of fans that will make a showing in support of their team?
Jeremy: I think there will be a good core of alums and fans in general to make the trip. I don't think by any means will they fill up half of the stands at Oregon State, but I definitely believe there will be a showing of those dedicated fans.
BTD: Any last thoughts, or a prediction for what will happen when the Spartans square off with the Beavers?
Jeremy: I think it will be a good game. I think the Spartans will hang with the Beavers for a while, but the Beavers rushing attack is impressive, and with the rushing defense being a weakness of the Spartans, I think this gets exposed. Added to that the fact that it's an away game and the Spartans aren't sure who is going to be quarterback, I think this all just adds up to a Beavers win.
That's a great look inside all things Spartans. Thanks again, Jeremy!
Be sure to follow the Mountain West Connection for updates on San Jose State all week.