Residents of Utah know that Utah State has recently gone from parody to relative parity next to BYU and Utah during the last three years. In fact, former USU head coach Gary Andersen won more games in 2012 than Brent Guy won in his entire career in Logan.
But amidst this rise, another team Utah residents may not be as familiar with has kept pace with the Aggies in becoming a contender — the San Jose State Spartans.
The Spartans then
In 2010, coach Mike McIntyre took over a disheveled, worn-down Spartan program. Its lone win on the year (barely) came at home to the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. The future outlook seemed dim.
But the Spartans didn't quit. Behind quarterback Matt Faulkner, they fought and battled their way to five wins in 2011. Notching close victories over Hawaii and Colorado State, they nearly attained bowl eligibility until they dropped a squeaker to the then struggling Aggies in Romney Stadium. All this was sunshine compared to 2010's campaign.
In 2012, three years of hard work paid off for McIntyre's program. Behind junior college transfer quarterback David Fales, the Spartans notched an 11-win season, their first in more than 50 years, including wins over BYU and Bowling Green.
Inevitably, McIntyre ended up taking a bigger head coaching job for Colorado with defensive coordinator Kent Baer in tow. Shortly after, Ron Caragher was named the Spartans' new head coach.
The Spartans now
After a phenomenal 2012 campaign in which David Fales threw for more than 4,000 yards and led the FBS in pass accuracy, Caragher inherited a fairly intact Spartan squad and overall a good situation. Most of the offense returns, including Fales' primary receiving core in Chandler Jones and Noel Grigsby, though he is currently out with an injury.
However, the defense is a bit more of a work in progress. Much of it has been thinned out from last year with the graduation of defensive ends Travis Johnson and David Tuitupou. On top of this, Caragher is installing a new 3-4 system and incorporating new schemes that weren't previously used. And thus far, the drop-off has been a bit noticeable.
Week one: Sacramento State
The Spartans comfortably shut out the FCS Sacramento State Hornets in Spartan Stadium to the tune of 24-0. However, Fales only completed half of his passes, which makes one wonder how inspired the offense is. And pitching a shutout against an FCS team says little about how the defense will fare moving forward.
Week two: Stanford
Unlike last year in which the Spartans nearly stole a victory from the Cardinal, this year's game was a different story. Stanford was ready from the onset and severely limited San Jose's rushing attack. The defense also frustrated David Fales all night with four sacks. Fales threw mostly short and intermediate passes, completing 29 of 43 for 216 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
The Spartans hung tough for the first half, but the Cardinal's play-style eventually overwhelmed them in a 34-13 rout.
Week three: Minnesota
Minnesota had its struggles last season, finishing just 6-7 with a bowl loss to Texas Tech. This seemed like a recipe for destruction at the hands of a solid Spartan offense.
That's not how the game played out. Though the Spartans only trailed by three at halftime, Minnesota's offense decimated San Jose's defense in the second half. The Spartans allowed 353 yards on the ground, many of which came at the hands of Minnesota's dual-threat quarterback, and couldn't respond on the scoreboard. Even though Fales threw for more than 400 yards, the Spartans limped home after a convincing 43-24 victory for the Golden Gophers.
What USU fans can expect on Friday
The Spartans have played the Aggies exceptionally tough for a long time. Though San Jose leads the series 20-14-1, the Aggies have won four in a row. However, outside of last year's 49-27 beat-down, two of those wins have been extremely close and hard-fought. Who can forget the blocked field goal in 2011 to seal the win for the Aggies?
Still, David Fales is an extremely dangerous quarterback. To put this into perspective, the Aggies sacked Fales 13 times in last year's game, a school record. Even then, Fales was 38 of 50 in passing for 467 yards with three touchdowns. The talk of him going in the first round of the NFL draft after the season aren't without merit.
Utah State robbed San Jose of a chance at the WAC championship last season. As such, the Spartans will likely want a bit of revenge. Traveling to Spartan Stadium for the second year in a row has "trap game" written all over it.
This is going to be a tough but winnable game for the Aggies.
Sam McConkie is a technical and professional writing graduate from Utah State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org