Fresno State vs. San Jose State.
Central Valley vs. Silicon Valley.
Fittingly, the Battle for the Valley Trophy.
The Bulldogs return to Fresno, following a pair of road wins at UNLV and Utah State, to host their rival Spartans Saturday. Unlike in recent years, the 2020 edition of the Valley Cup has more than pride on the line; with San Jose State off to its first 4-0 start since 1955, and Fresno State winning three straight to move to 3-1, Saturday’s matchup will have large consequences on the race to the Mountain West title game.
How the Spartans have fared in 2020:
Game 1: vs. Air Force, W 17-6
Game 2: vs. New Mexico, W 38-21
Game 3: at San Diego State, W 28-17
Game 4: vs UNLV, W 34-17
The lowdown on the Spartans:
The Spartans have rebounded from a 5-7 season in 2019, thanks in part to a new quarterback who transferred to San Jose from the SEC, and a defense that improved from ninth in the conference last season, to second this season in points allowed per game.
Senior Nick Starkel holds the keys to the offense as the Spartans’ starting quarterback. His 980 passing yards are the third-most in the conference, and his nine passing touchdowns are good for second-most. In an ironic twist, Starkel was the starter for Arkansas last year, who was upset at home by San Jose State. When Starkel came out west, he brought experience from his days as a Razorback, and from his stint at Texas A&M in 2017-18. The seasoned graduate senior is paying dividends for the Spartans so far.
Another quarterback to watch is sophomore Nick Nash who, similar to Ben Wooldridge for the Bulldogs, is a “change-of-pace” quarterback. After Starkel was knocked out of the game early against San Diego State, Nash filled the role of starter admirably and led the Spartans to a win. He’s seen playing time in every game this season, and ran for a career-high 96 yards last week against UNLV. Nash leads the Spartans in rushing (177 yards) and stands out as a concern for the Bulldogs, who have struggled to contain dual-threat quarterbacks.
“[Nash] brings the dynamic of athletic ability,” said Fresno State DC William Inge. “Those are the things that you have to prepare for, and that you need to have elements in your system and know when he is in the football game.”
The Spartans’ receiving corps, similar to Fresno State’s, features talented wideouts who can get open for the big play. The senior duo of Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker are second and seventh in the Mountain West in receiving yards, respectively. Gaither has 432 yards receiving and caught a touchdown in each of his past three games, including two last week. Gaither already has catches of 41, 52 and 69 yards this season, and broke out for 208 yards against New Mexico on Halloween.
Walker, a first team All-Mountain West selection in 2019, checks in with 265 yards and two touchdowns on the year. Walker was a top-five pass catcher in the FBS last year with 161 receptions, and led the conference in yards per game. Walker already holds a spot in the school’s record books, standing third all-time for career receiving yards and fourth all-time for career receptions at San Jose State.
The Spartans’ offense is geared towards explosive plays and pushing the ball down the field vertically; the Bulldogs’ defense has given up their share of big plays against UNLV and Utah State, but DC William Inge says his unit is learning from its mistakes.
“The biggest thing to stop those explosive plays is to apply your fundamentals, and that is some of the breakdowns that happen,” said Inge. “It’s a learning process… learn from some of the errors and mistakes, and let’s make sure that they don’t get us again.”
The Spartans on the defensive side have markedly improved from last year, when they surrendered the second-most yards per game in the Mountain West. It starts with the Spartans’ defensive front, one that Fresno State OC Ryan Grubb described as “by far the best we will have faced [this season].”
Bookending both ends of the defensive line is sophomore Villami Fehoko and junior Cade Hall. Fehoko is second on the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (6), right behind Hall (6.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks). Hall is coming off a three-sack performance against UNLV that earned him Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“The biggest thing is squeezing the air out of where they’re at and making sure they don’t have that operating area,” Grubb said, on how his O-Line could contain Fehoko and Hall.
Another playmaker on defense for the Spartans is linebacker Kyle Harmon, who leads the team in tackles with 52 and ranks third nationally in tackles per game. The 6-foot junior set a career high with 14 tackles in each of his first three games this season. Harmon is the anchor for a San Jose State defense giving up only 15.3 points per game, the second-lowest total in the conference.
“They are not overly heavy on pressures or certain coverages, they mix it up well,” Grubb said, on the SJSU defense. “They got a good structure, and they execute their gameplan very well. The best I’ve seen them since I’ve been here.”
How the Bulldogs have fared in 2020:
Game 1: vs. Hawaii, L 19-34
Game 2: vs. Colorado State, W 38-17
Game 3: at UNLV, W 40-27
Game 4: at Utah State, W 35-16
Bulldog notebook for Game 5:
- Quarterback Jake Haener became the first Bulldog since Derek Carr to eclipse 400 passing yards, with 411 yards last Saturday at Utah State. Ryan Grubb expects Ben Wooldridge to see playing time against San Jose State, however, saying the junior backup did not see the field against the Aggies due to cold weather in Logan and Haener holding the “hot hand.”
- Senior running back Ronnie Rivers is one touchdown away from setting the all-time Fresno State record for touchdowns in a career. He is currently tied with former Bulldog running back Anthony Daigle at 44.
“As teammates, we look up to Ronnie, and being able to see him achieve that goal for his career is going to mean a lot to us, and I know it is to him as well,” said Jalen Cropper on Ronnie Rivers chasing history.
- Speaking of Cropper, the former Buchanan Bear was named Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week for his 202-yard, 3 TD performance against Utah State. It was the first time a Bulldog receiver surpassed the 200-yard mark since Davante Adams did it in 2013. Cropper is now seventh in the Mountain West in receiving yards, and tied for second in receiving touchdowns.
- The Bulldogs’ pass rush has showed its teeth so far in 2020, leading the nation in sacks per game with five. Two seniors on the defensive line – DE Kwami Jones and DT Kevin Atkins – lead the team with four sacks each.
- Another key member of Fresno State’s defensive front is Sacramento State transfer David Perales. The former Merced High standout is second on the team with three sacks, and talked about how much the Valley rivalry meant to him during media availability Tuesday.
“I always thought I could go to [San Jose State] one day, and they never reached out to me or anything, so I’ll make them pay for it,” said Perales.
The junior defensive end also showed his tattoo of the “V” Valley sign on the inside of his elbow, which he said he received last year.
- Head coach Kalen DeBoer also spoke on the Fresno State-SJSU rivalry and what it means to the program, especially with Mountain West title game hopes on the line:
“I was introduced to the rivalry and it was a big deal. We had a lot of alumni on the staff and Coach Tedford made it very well aware of what this rivalry meant and how many years it went back… it’s a trophy game for us, and one of our goals is to win our trophy games.”
“No matter what, you always throw the records out, but when you got a 4-0 vs. 3-1 team, it should be a good football game.”