WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi did a question-and-answer swap with Jimmy Durkin, who covers San Jose State football for the San Jose Mercury News in San Jose, California.
Follow on Twitter: @Jimmy_Durkin
Look for Q&As with beat writers that cover UW football opponents every week throughout the season.
One of the most noticeable improvements for San Jose State is defensively. It entered last week’s games leading the Mountain West in passing defense and total defense. Where has the biggest improvement been and how much better, overall, is the Spartans’ defense?
The biggest improvement is coaching. Greg Robinson is a huge upgrade over the inexperienced and overmatched Kenwick Thompson, who last year chose to make San Jose State’s players adapt to his defense, rather than him adapting his scheme to the skills of the players.
Beyond that, the Spartans have what can pretty easily be described as the best secondary in the Mountain West. Cleveland Wallace III is a transfer from Washington and teams with Jimmy Pruitt at cornerback to give SJSU two players who can lock on in man coverage. True freshman Maurice McKnight is the free safety in nickel situations and is another shutdown man coverage defender and great open field tackler. The group is brought together by senior Forrest Hightower, who has turned into a great support man in the run game and is making plays in the pass game as well. With a couple good linebackers in Christian Tago and Vince Buhagiar and a potential NFL draft pick in defensive tackle Travis Raciti, it’s just an overall solid group and has been brought together by a veteran, experience defensive coordinator in Robinson — the two-time Super Bowl winner with the Denver Broncos.
How has the change at quarterback to Joe Gray helped or hindered the Spartans, and is he the guy for San Jose State moving forward?
It’s helped quite a bit. While the competition may not be equal, the difference in numbers are staggering. SJSU is averaging 494 yards per game in the two games with Gray as the starter and just 326.3 when Blake Jurich was in charge. Sure, Jurich had to face Auburn and Minnesota, but he also got to face FCS North Dakota.
I think the players feel more confident in Gray. He was the presumed starter all along. He looked to have won the job in spring, spent all summer as the presumed starter and then Jurich won it with a good fall. Gray’s a much more polished passer, has better pocket presence and is much calmer under pressure.
How would you assess this San Jose State team so far. With the West Division of the Mountain West up for grabs, are the Spartans a contender for the division title?
I can’t come up with a reason why not. They actually could end up being the most complete team in the West Division. They play defense, something the conference as a whole isn’t exactly known for. And they’ve got an improving offense settling in under a quarterback who at one point was bound for the Pac-12 (Gray committed to Washington while in high school). Add in the factor that, for whatever reason, nobody is really looking at them as a contender outside of San Jose, and I think they could be a dangerous sleeper candidate to win the West. As we all know, it’s a pretty mediocre conference this year and yet somebody has to win it. The loss to Nevada two weeks ago doesn’t help. Had they held on to their 10-7 fourth-quarter lead and won that game, I think we’d definitely be calling them the favorite right now.
What are a couple of the key match-ups in your opinion in Saturday’s game in Laramie?
The biggest thing for San Jose State is slowing down Shaun Wick. The numbers and what I’ve seen indicate the Spartans are vulnerable against the run, although the numbers are naturally skewed by games against Auburn and Minnesota. But this will be SJSU’s first chance against a team that runs the ball out of the I-formation and comes right at you. They’ve struggled against read option teams, but seem a little more suited to defend a more traditional running game. We’ll see though.
The other big matchup is San Jose State’s speed threats against the Cowboys’ secondary. Guys like running back/receiver Tyler Ervin, receiver Hansell Wilson and receiver Jourdan Soares are burners that have shown capability to get past secondaries — even Auburn’s. The more those guys are able to go deep and create some explosive plays, the more that opens things up for Tyler Winston in the intermediate passing game.
How do you see thing game unfolding and what’s your predicted final score?
I think San Jose State’s defense does well against an offense that hasn’t done much this year. If the Spartans prevent Wyoming from making big runs on first and second down, they’ll make life tough on the Cowboys on third down as the past two SJSU opponents are 3 for 23 on third down. After Hawaii put up more than 500 yards on Wyoming, I would think SJSU can do the same thing or at least get close. I see the Spartans winning 35-21.
Durkin’s questions for Gagliardi:
Wyoming suffered what has to be a deflating loss last week, made even worse by the long and late trip home. For a team trying to build a new identity under a new coach, how much damage do you think that defeat will inflict?
That’s the big question around here because last season a 42-21 loss at Texas State sent the team into a 2-5 tailspin the rest of the season, and several close and deflating losses early in the 2012 season resulted in a 4-8 final record. Many of the same players on those teams are key members this season. The new coaching staff is preaching patience and being positive, yet addressing some of the shortcomings on the field. How this team reacts to that moving forward will likely dictate how this season goes.
If Wyoming can’t beat San Jose State this week, the schedule looks daunting enough that this could turn into a lengthy losing streak. Is there a sense of urgency that this is a must-win game or the season could quickly turn?
I think so, especially among the fan base. Last week’s game at Hawaii was one of those games, I thought. The coaching staff isn’t looking at it that way, but this game and last week’s game were ones if the Cowboys were to get bowl eligible, or even compete for a Mountain Division title, they needed to get. If they drop this one Saturday things will look pretty bleak.
How is the transition to Craig Bohl going? Clearly, there are shifting gears considerably and I think the popular thought may be that it will take a couple recruiting classes to develop the team Bohl wants. Is that accurate, or is there anything you’ve seen to indicate the program may be ahead of schedule?
That’s accurate. The team showed some solid progress with wins in their first three home games. Even though those victories were not pretty, Wyoming came back from fourth-quarter deficits in two of them and held its opponents to less than 20 points in all three wins — things last year’s team couldn’t do. Some solid progress has been made since this staff took over, but it still has a ways to go.
Brett Smith was a definite talent at quarterback and his decision to enter the NFL Draft (in a deep year at the position) was obviously curious. How much better would this Wyoming team be if he had stuck around for his senior year?
One has to think Wyoming would have been better with Smith, who was a three-year starter and could also make things happen with his legs when plays broke down. But to his credit, redshirt senior Colby Kirkegaard has been pretty good. Kirkegaard is a guy who was fourth string last season, and many didn’t know he redshirted until after the season. This is his first extensive playing time since he was in junior college in 2010. Kirkegaard hasn’t been perfect and there is room for improvement, but after what Wyoming had to endure by losing Smith and his probable replacement in sophomore Jason Thompson (transferred to Utah), Kirkegaard has been a nice surprise and done a solid job.
How do you see this game turning out?
San Jose State’s speed and skill are huge concerns for Wyoming, and the way the defense played last week at Hawaii (being outscored 28-7 in the second half and allowing 513 yards of total offense for the game) is not the way the Cowboys wanted to go into this game. Wyoming has to be much more sound in the secondary, which will be a challenge without one of its leaders in senior free safety Darrenn White (knee). Still, Wyoming is 3-0 at home and has found ways to turn ugly games into wins. If it can do that Saturday and the game is close I like its chances. Wyoming 24, San Jose State 21.