As football once again comes to The Farm, Stanford is presented with the most formidable of opponents, the gravest of foes, the sure bet to challenge and conquer each of its competitors this season: the San Jose State Spartans.
Needless to say, the previous paragraph is dripping with facetiousness. SJSU, unlike many Week 1 opponents for powerhouse teams, is an FBS school, but one of the worst such teams in America. The Spartans went 0-8 in the WAC last season before finishing with a 1-12 overall record. Their lone win was a 5-point victory over the Big Sky’s Southern Utah Thunderbirds. SJSU managed just over 16 points per game last year (115th in the nation) while allowing nearly 35 a pop (105th). The team scored fewer than 10 points in 4 appearances.
A statistical recap of Stanford’s school-record-breaking 2010 season could fill this space, trumpeting the accomplishment’s of Harbaugh’s final year in Stanford Stadium while playing up the stark statistical and pragmatic contrast between the Card and the Spartans. But that contrast is sufficiently obvious that it can be captured very simply: Stanford is very good, and San Jose State is not.
A player-by-player match-up summary won’t do either: Andrew Luck, the Heisman favorite and the type of professional prospect that NFL scouts see once every dozen years, goes up against SJSU’s Matt Faulkner, a fifth-year senior who threw for 206 yards with a 54% completion percentage last season. (Michigan transfer Tate Forcier, who has committed to SJSU after a lengthy and tumultuous transfer process, won’t be eligible to play for the Spartans until 2012.) While Stanford will trot out a roster full of future NFL players and–most likely–multiple future Pro Bowlers, safety Duke Ihenacho will be San Jose State’s lone Sunday prospect.
Barring an Appalachian State/James Madison-type miracle, the Spartans will not win on Saturday. The main question is not who will win, but how cleanly Stanford will play, which players will get time on the field and the final margin between the teams.
Depending upon who you ask, the spread hovers around 30 points; when these two teams last met, in 2009, Stanford won by 25 after SJSU’s Lamon Muldrow scored a 4th quarter touchdown to narrow the gap from 32.
Unless the Spartans have made significant defensive improvements since last fall, Stanford should be able to score at will. And, considering the Card’s personnel and their success last year, even remarkable steps forward down south likely won’t be enough to make San Jose State able to shut down the Stanford offense. Expect Stanford head coach David Shaw to pull his starters fairly early and save them from any increased threat of injury. That’s especially true for players like Andrew Luck and Chris Owusu, who are too important to risk over an easy win and, particularly for the injury-prone Owusu, cannot get hurt if the Card expect to realize the lofty expectations set for them this year. While Luck has proven to be durable so far in his collegiate career (a finger surgery prior to the 2009 Sun Bowl is the one noteworthy exception), it would be hard to discredit Shaw for being anxious over the quarterback’s health.
We’ll get to see the full running back stable and get a look at how Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson got better during the offseason. They’ll also have their first opportunity to run behind the new offensive line, which could be the team’s biggest question mark going into 2011. Andrew Luck will excel in the passing game this year. That much is virtually a given. The blocking for the running game is not as certain.
Even with the cream of Stanford’s crop likely pulled well before the final whistle, this game won’t be close after the first few minutes. Look for Stanford to win handily but not beat the spread, and certainly don’t hold your breath for an Alabama-type beat-down on SJSU. Last year, Stanford rolled Sacramento State and got a 52-17 Week 1 win at home. But as down as the Spartan program is, San Jose State could beat Sac State with ease. A struggling WAC team should be able to beat a middle-of-the-road Big Sky program more often than not, as the Spartans proved with the aforementioned win over Southern Utah last year. Plus, if only out of respect, Stanford won’t destroy SJSU. After all, this is the (more or less) annual Bill Walsh Legacy Game, and David Shaw has enormous respect for his former Stanford coach. Respecting Walsh’s legacy and honoring good sportsmanship late in the game will likely win out over any marginal benefit the Card would gain among national observers by running up the score.
Andrew Luck, Shayne Skov and the rest of the starters will look good for several series and then come out, letting the Spartans make things a bit more respectable before Week 1 concludes.
Verdict: Stanford beats San Jose State, 45-17
How to Follow the Game
2:00 pm PST, Saturday, September 3
Live: Tickets at GoStanford.com
TV: CSN Bay Area
Radio: KZSU (90.1 FM or streaming online); KNBR (1050 AM)