What we learned about San Jose State’s season-opening loss to No. 6 USC

The Spartans face another Pac-12 power on Sunday, playing host to No. 18 Oregon State at Spartan Stadium

LOS ANGELES (AP) — With Elijah Cooks gone to the NFL, Chevan Cordeiro will have a new No. 1 receiver this season. In a surprising turn of events Saturday night in San Jose State’s season-opening loss to No. 6 USC, his primary target was a player who was vying for the Spartans’ quarterback job a year ago.

In the Spartans’ 56-28 loss at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Cordeiro and Nick Nash connected six times for 89 yards and three touchdowns.

“This performance gave me a lot of confidence in myself and (Cordeiro) to give me the ball,” Nash said after making a diving catch in the back corner of the end zone while being held on the play.

Nash has been a full-time receiver since joining the team in 2019, and his role may be expanding.

Against the Trojans, the Spartans were without their projected top receiver, Justin Lockhart. The preseason All-Mountain West selection traveled with the team but sat on the sidelines in street clothes. Team officials declined to comment on why Lockhart did not play, but the junior did not take part in any of the practices leading up to the USC game.

Lockhart’s status for the Spartans’ next Pac-12 game, a home opener against Oregon State on Sunday, is unknown.

Nash was Cordeiro’s safety blanket against USC on a night when he struggled to find a rhythm throwing the ball to other receivers and tight ends who were dropping passes. Cordeiro put his trust in Nash to make a play whether he was double covered or had to fit the ball into a tight window.

“(Nick and I) have been building that connection since spring ball,” Cordeiro explained. “It’s clear that he’s a quarterback. He’s smart, he understands the coverages, and he knows where he needs to be to make me feel safe.”

“Nick Nash is a special kid, and just watching his transition, development, and maturity, he’s always been a psychotic competitor,” said SJSU head coach Brent Brennan. That hasn’t changed since he was a true freshman quarterback for us.”

I’m off and running.

Last season, SJSU struggled to establish an effective running game, gaining more than 85 yards in only five games. Four times, the Spartans were held to less than 50 yards.

However, the Spartans got off to a fast start against USC, gaining 198 of their 396 total yards on 27 rushing attempts (an average of 7.3 yards per carry). That’s a good sign going into a game against an Oregon State defense that ranked 15th in the country against the run last season, allowing 108.2 yards per game.

Cordeiro rushed for 52 yards in addition to his 198 passing yards, and Kairee Robinson, the team’s leading rusher last season, added 28 yards on nine carries. But it was newcomer Quali Conley who stood out, rushing for 108 yards on just six carries in his Spartans debut.

Conley, a junior, transferred from Utah Tech after rushing for 1,095 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

How USC did it

The Spartans went into halftime with some momentum, trailing only 21-14. When the Spartans forced a fourth-and-3 on their own 43 early in the third quarter, USC quarterback Caleb Williams completed a 23-yard pass to Mario Williams for a first down. USC scored on that possession to increase its lead to 28-14.

The Trojans continued to score touchdowns after that, and the Spartans had no answer. True freshman Zachariah Branch returned a 96-yard kickoff to the house with 1:34 left in the third quarter to put the Trojans up 42-21.

“Honestly, there’s disappointment in our hearts right now because we had an opportunity for that thing to be a fight, like a close one,” Brennan explained. “I also give them credit.” They made the decisions. We hit a flat kick in the middle of the field to the freshman, and he’s something special. He was incredible, to say the least. We all knew him in high school, and five stars don’t come by accident.”

Defense inquiries

The absences of Junior Fehoko, Cade Hall, and Kyle Harmon were palpable in Saturday’s defeat. Williams, who won the Heisman Trophy after last season, will make many defenses look foolish this season, but it wasn’t difficult to tell that SJSU didn’t have many playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.

The SJSU defense struggled to contain Williams, who completed 18 of 25 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns. Williams appeared in eight series, six of which ended in touchdowns for the Trojans.

SJSU’s lone sack came from defensive lineman Tre Smith, and the Spartans only had three tackles for a loss.

“I think it comes down to the fact that we all need to make more plays,” Smith said. “We just need to gel as a cohesive unit and start making plays.”

What’s next?

The Spartans will host No. 18 Oregon State on September 3 in a rare Sunday college game.

DJ Uiagalelei, who was slated to be the heir apparent to Trevor Lawrence at Clemson before transferring to Oregon State this year, will be forced to play for SJSU.

Playing Uiagalelei, according to Brennan, will be very different from playing Caleb Williams.

“I don’t think DJ and Caleb are alike outside of the fact that they’re both heavily recruited kids,” Brennan said. “I believe DJ is a very different problem.” He’s a much larger man, and he’s more of a pure thrower.”

Oregon State is coming off a 10-3 season that included a 30-3 victory over Florida in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl.

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