By Ernie Gonzalez (@superego1012):
A 10-game losing streak will forever spoil the afterthought of the 2017 season, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any bright spots that came out of this year.
If there was a lesson learned for first-year head coach Brent Brennan, it’s simple — well, complicated, maybe.
Remember what Brennan said after the 61-10 gut-punching conference-play opener against Utah State? He said it’s hard to win college football games.
The season began as most expected, with sophomore quarterback Josh Love earning the starting job because of experience.
A hot 16-0 first quarter start for the Spartans disappeared after Charlie Strong’s South Florida Bulls tallied 42 unanswered bullying SJSU the rest of the way. USF scored 28 in the second quarter alone, a quarter that haunted the Spartans all season.
SJSU was outscored 201-39 in second quarters this season, which made it difficult for a young team to battle back and was one of the most underrated causes for most of their blowouts.
The offense settled in, and so did redshirt freshman quarterback Montel Aaron a week later against the Cal Poly Mustangs. Aaron’s three-touchdown game led the Spartans to a commanding 34-13 victory week two.
The next four September games were a nightmare, as SJSU was outscored 212-39 to Texas, Utah, Utah State and UNLV in that order.
The one thing that came out of those games was the first-team experience to some of the freshmen including Tyler Nevens, Tre Walker and JaQuan Blackwell who all had growing performances on the road in September.
The Spartans took a blow however to quarterback Montel Aaron, who suffered a lower-leg injury in Texas sidelining him until the mid-October matchup in Hawaii.
All four games of Aaron’s absence were against teams with talent at the quarterback position, quarterbacks who are known to use their legs to extend plays and tire a defense.
Utah’s Tyler Huntley, Utah State’s Kent Myers, UNLV’s Armani Rodgers, and Fresno State’s Marcus McMaryion all looked heisman-like while the Spartans had Aaron on crutches.
Aaron returned a week before the bye week, as the Spartans made the Hawaii trip. The game resulted in another loss, but it was Rahshead Johnson’s breakout game. The USC transfer totaled three touchdowns, including a 96-yard kickoff return, the first in five years for SJSU.
The Spartans were 1-7 at the Oct. 21 bye.
Johnson’s first quarter injury against BYU stung, especially one game after his incredible return. To see hope turn to ashes, especially for a struggling offense had to had been challenging for the Spartans.
At the time, the Cougars were just as bad as SJSU, only winning one game in eight tries. Nevens rushed for 112 yards which made it the first time in his collegiate career he hit the century mark.
Turnovers pinched the Spartans as it did all year, as they lost a season-high four fumbles against the Cougars. The Spartans finished the 2017 dead last in turnovers lost with 42, an astonishing 13 more than New Mexico’s 29.
The Spartans returned home for the first time in nearly a month, hosting San Diego State and its matchup didn’t get any easier.
Rashaad Penny, who finished first in the country in rushing yards tore the fragile Spartan defense to shreds on Nov. 4, rushing for 234 rushing yards and three touchdowns in three quarters against SJSU, leading the Aztecs to a 52-7 victory.
The Spartans had ranked in the bottom ten schools at stopping the run for a couple years in a row, and SDSU made sure it took advantage in San Jose that night, as the team ran for a program record 554 rushing yards.
SJSU hit the road the following week to Reno, as it again played victim to another record. This time, not program wide, but on an individual level.
It was the second time in three weeks the Spartans faced an opponent with an identical record (1-9). The Wolf Pack’s Dameon Baber became just the third player in NCAA history to record three touchdowns via return that game against SJSU. Two came on interception returns (one from endzone to endzone) and the other was a punt block scoop and score.
The Spartans fell to Nevada bad, 59-14.
The final road contest came against Colorado State in Fort Collins. The Spartans scored first for the second time in as many weeks, but their inability to fight and finish to the end overwhelmed them heavily. A 7-0 lead turned into a 28-7 halftime deficit and the Spartans were too hurt and too small to battle back.
The Spartans lost 42-14, just about what experts predicted heading into it. With a dozen seniors one week away from their final game as a Spartan, something clicked.
It was a different Spartan team that showed up Nov. 25. It was a Spartan team that reminded some of prior teams. One that used its defense to grind out the victory. The MoneyTeam came back to life and had fun, the D-line looked stronger, and the linebackers showed no mercy.
And that was the attitude that the Spartans lacked all season. A no-mercy-mindset. The Spartans topped the Cowboys in the final game of their regular season not because Wyoming’s talented Josh Allen didn’t start, but because they wanted it more.
Now let’s hope this catapults the Spartans into landing some recruits in the offseason and ultimately a better record next season.
If the Spartans plan to succeed in next season, it starts right now, while most teams are bowl-bound and thinking about 2017, the Spartans need to be already thinking ahead to 2018.
Whether that’s a player hitting the weight room or the coaches hitting the highways, a rebuilding effort is team wide.