What’s the plan for USC and Caleb Williams? An all-access look inside San Jose State’s game week

SAN JOSE, Calif. — By the time Brent Brennan sits down at the head of the table, flanked by his assistant coaches, he is well aware of what San Jose State is up against.

It is Thursday afternoon and Brennan is just two days from beginning his seventh season as the Spartans head coach. During his tenure, his program has played Texas, Oregon, Utah, Arkansas and Auburn.

But as Brennan tells his coaching staff during a meeting inside the brand-new Spartans Athletic Center a little more than 48 hours before San Jose State opens the season against sixth-ranked USC: “There’s no bigger fight than this.”

The Trojans have a rock star coach in Lincoln Riley. They return the Heisman Trophy winner, Caleb Williams, at quarterback. They beefed up their defensive personnel through the transfer portal. They’re the Pac-12 favorites and are considered by many as a strong contender for the College Football Playoff.

There might be two teams scheduled to play Saturday night at the L.A. Coliseum, but the college football world is interested in only one of them.

Hell, Riley met with the media twice during the week and didn’t field a single question about San Jose State.

“So the world’s been kissing their ass heavy,” Brennan tells his coaching staff. “We just have to play good football, out-physical, out-effort them because we know they’re going to have more talent than us. That’s OK.”

For a half, that formula works. The Spartans, 31-point underdogs, play well and are down just 21-14 at the break. Late into the third quarter, it is still a fight.

Sometimes, though, effort, execution and physicality can take a team only so far and the gap in talent is far too much to overcome. These are the cruel, sobering waters the Spartans swim in, as the Trojans pull away in the final 17 minutes en route to a 56-28 victory.

“We had an opportunity for that thing to be a fight, like a close one,” Brennan says after the game. “I credit them. They made the plays.”

Before San Jose State faced USC on Saturday, The Athletic spent four days inside the program, getting an all-access look at the Spartans as they prepared to play a top-10 team. It proved to be a study about the haves, the have-nots and the sport of college football.

It’s Monday morning, and San Jose State linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Scott White doesn’t want to hear about USC’s supposedly uninspiring return game. Yes, the Trojans ranked 100th in the nation in punt returns (5.47 yards) and 97th in kickoff returns (17.7 yards) in 2022.

But White knows USC has the athletes who could potentially change the momentum of the game in a matter of seconds.

A few hours later, during a special teams staff meeting, the coaches look at a PowerPoint slide that highlights two USC returners.

On the left is third-year wideout Michael Jackson III, who is described on the slide as “fearless.” On the right is five-star freshman Zachariah Branch, who has yet to play in a college game but is already a significant topic of discussion in San Jose State’s football offices throughout the week.

“That guy’s f—— explosive,” White tells his fellow coaches.

White has seen plenty of USC over the past 20 years dating back to his time as a linebacker at Washington playing against the star-studded Pete Carroll teams in the mid-2000s to his tenure as an assistant coach at UCLA in the mid-2010s when the Trojans won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title.

“We’re going to talk about that until I’m blue in the face because that is going to be the most important part of the game: They’re a momentum-based outfit,” White tells his players in a meeting early in the week. “I’ve played these guys as a player, a coach. A million times. They’re going to be charged up, they’re at home, a lot of energy in the building.”

On Thursday, White simplifies the special teams portion of the game in a discussion with The Athletic. There are only three possible outcomes on a given special teams play: There’s a good play, a bad play or a push. Obviously, a good outcome is the preference, but you want to create as many pushes as possible. Manage the momentum, he says.

That’s why he harps on ball placement to his kickers and punters in meetings during the week. Don’t give an opportunity to Branch, Raleek Brown or any of USC’s other dynamic playmakers to completely wreck the game.

San Jose State’s first three kickoffs result in either a touchback or a fair catch. The fourth is when disaster strikes — and comes at an especially inopportune time, just after the Spartans closed to the gap to 35-21 with 1:55 left in the third quarter.

It is a five-star talent making a five-star play — one that essentially puts an end to any hopes of a San Jose State upset. That return sparks a run of 21 consecutive points for USC. That avalanche of momentum finally comes crashing down on the Spartans.

“He’s something else,” Brennan says of Branch, who piles up 232 total yards and two touchdowns, after the game. “Good lord. He’s fantastic. We all saw him in high school. You don’t get five stars by accident.”

Chip Viney is very familiar with USC’s staff. With the exception of the 2017 season, he spent every year on the Oklahoma sidelines from 2013 through 2021 — as a graduate assistant, an analyst and then director of player development.

Viney, now in his second season as San Jose State’s cornerbacks coach, knows how the staff operates and what it preaches, and he’s familiar with Williams, who he built a relationship with during the recruiting process. He has the utmost respect for Riley, who he witnessed make the transition from young offensive coordinator to one of the best coaches in the sport at OU. But, as a coach on the opposite sideline now, he doesn’t want to get caught up in the hype.

“It’s one of those things for me you can’t let it suffocate you,” Viney says in his office on Tuesday afternoon. “I told my guys yesterday: ‘I want to see that Heisman Trophy out there on the field on Saturday. If that’s what he is, let’s see it. He’s still got to play in this game.’”

Throughout the week, there is plenty of talk among the coaching staff about how dangerous Williams can be out of structure. Four minutes into the Monday morning staff meeting, Brennan proposes the idea of instituting a drill in which the team’s defensive linemen would chase wide receiver Nick Nash, a converted quarterback, in a 5-by-5 area to mimic what it’s like rushing Williams.

“To me, watching this guy, it’s not just his elusiveness. It’s a strength to it that makes it a problem,” Brennan says. “He just sheds people like f—— John Elway back in the day.”

On Saturday, San Jose State limits the amount of awe-inspiring plays that filled Williams’ Heisman highlight reel last season. The one play, though, where Williams recreates that magic is a backbreaker.

“He’s just fantastic. He’s just so strong. He’s got incredible poise out there,” Brennan says after the game. “Just total respect for him. You don’t win the Heisman by accident — certainly not as a West Coast guy. It’s harder. … He’s brilliant. He’s tough. He’s a big-time competitor.”

San Jose State defensive coordinator Derrick Odum knows what he’s doing. The Spartans have ranked in the top 30 nationally in yards per play allowed in each of the past three seasons and have been in the top 30 in scoring defense twice during that span.

Odum acknowledges he could dial up the perfect defensive call any some point in the game and it might not matter because of Williams’ ability to take a potential disaster and turn it into a special play.

“That’s the tough part,” he says.

San Jose State’s quarterbacks watch film of USC’s defense on Wednesday and Thursday. One opponent consistently pops up: Utah. There is some Arizona and Fresno State mixed in, but plays from the Trojans’ two 2022 games against the Utes show up most frequently.

No matter how much film is watched, it’s going to be difficult to get a good read on what the Trojans defense — which was flat-out bad in 2022 — might look like thanks to an influx of transfers. In fact, USC will start five players along the defensive front in the opener who weren’t on the roster in the Cotton Bowl in January.

“You’re kind of walking in there blindfolded,” running backs coach Alonzo Carter says.

But offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven at least has some familiarity with USC’s oft-criticized defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

McGiven was the quarterbacks coach and OC at Oregon State from 2015 through 2017 when Grinch coordinated Washington State’s defense. How Grinch operates the back end of the defense is a bit different now, McGiven says, but the front was relatively the same. A lot of slants, angles and pre-snap shifting.

As one assistant coach puts it, USC’s defense is kind of “feast or famine.” It lives off of chaos. Sometimes that will result in a negative play or turnover. But it also leaves the Trojans vulnerable to the big play. McGiven likes Utah’s plan, which included a lot of motion and misdirection and — when called for — taking large chunks of time off the clock to keep Williams and those skill players off the field.

San Jose State’s quarterbacks meet to prepare for USC. (Antonio Morales / The Athletic)

“With what we’re doing, obviously we’re hoping to pop something loose — a lot of the pre-snap stuff, misdirection and a lot of pre-snap movement to force them to communicate,” McGiven says on Wednesday. “That’s what I feel like regardless of what they’re doing in Week 1, if you can force them to communicate a bunch of stuff then maybe give them as much base as possible.”

In USC’s first matchup with Utah last season, Utes quarterback Cam Rising threw for 415 yards but also made big plays with his legs — he rushed for 60 yards and three scores. On Saturday, USC’s new-look defensive front, led by Bear Alexander, Anthony Lucas and Jamil Muhammad, create a lot of havoc that often forces San Jose State QB Chevan Cordeiro out of the pocket.

Cordeiro makes USC pay with his legs when it doesn’t properly spy him. He rushes for 28 yards on a third-and-22 to set up San Jose State’s first touchdown and picks up several first downs on unscripted runs.

Cordeiro finishes with 52 yards rushing (one sack knocks more than 20 yards off his total) and also throws for 198 yards and three touchdowns. Cordeiro is well known in the Mountain West — he was named the league’s preseason offensive Player of the Year — but introduces himself to a larger audience on Saturday.

“The quarterback’s a good player,” Riley says after the game. “We called several things throughout the game. We had a spy on him a lot of times and a couple times we got lost in there and a couple times we got lost in there, got too aggressive. And a couple times, he flat-out out ran us. He’s a good player.”

San Jose State has some success with its initial offensive plan but has trouble with the Trojans defensive front, which has a good handle on the traditional run game — a 57-yard run late skews the stats — and applies consistent pressure on Cordeiro. Untimely penalties and negative plays hurt too.

Some on the Spartans staff weren’t overly concerned about USC’s secondary leading up to the game. Nash catches three touchdowns.

So if San Jose State, which was without three offensive starters on Saturday, was able to move the ball that well against the Trojans, how will the defense hold up against teams with more talent in the second half of the season?

Brennan is well aware that San Jose State is viewed as one of the most challenging jobs in the FBS, but he will never make any excuses. He accentuates the positives, but it’s clear to anyone who spends time with the program that there are significant hurdles — starting with something as basic as feeding the team.

In the Monday morning staff meeting, Tanner Schultheis, the program’s director of football operations, lays out the food situation for the Spartans players.

Breakfast the the only meal of the day that is served to the football players in the Spartan Athletics Center. They’ll get swipe cards for lunch and dinner that can be used for meals on campus, but that’s a far cry from what occurs at Power 5 programs, where players are provided with three meals per day and nutrition plans targeted specifically for their needs.

That’s a major obstacle San Jose State has yet to clear.

“(It) is the best we can do right now,” Brennan tells his staff. “I’m glad we’re getting them fed here in the morning. The other part of that is it’s a complicated problem.”

The “complication” is cost. Cash rules above all else in college football, and San Jose State simply doesn’t have enough of it. The Spartans are one of the worst-resourced schools in FBS. It might sound weird to others at the university as Brennan sits in a new facility that costs roughly $60 million dollars, but the Spartans are drastically behind in the sport’s never-ending arms race.

The goal post on the practice field is broken. It’s August and the field, which is shared with the men’s and women’s soccer programs, is already brown. But if it comes down to fixing that or raising money to buy food for the players, food takes precedence.

The Spartan Athletics Center (Antonio Morale / The Athletic)

Those inequities show up in other ways too. There are only two full-time strength coaches, one full-time recruiting staffer and one student manager each for offense and defense. Position coaches often set up their own drills during practice.

Up until this month, the staff had to set up and break down 120 folding chairs every day just to hold team meetings.

The program has no real presence in name, image and likeness. (USC, has enough donor support that 65 players’ families are able to travel to road games this season.)

The administration is giving more — the new facility is a sign of that — but more support is needed from those around the community. One problem is the program’s lack of history.

“Football is that gateway to that conversation around the dinner table,” says Ben Thienes, the Spartans senior associate AD of football and facilities who has been with Brennan for seven years. “Football is that gateway to the pride of the university. Football is the gateway to the people’s ability to recognize and see the brand. That hasn’t been there in so long so people don’t value San Jose State at the level they should — at what this thing is.”

From 1993 through 2016, the Spartans posted just three winning seasons and appeared in three bowl games. And those winning seasons also came in the WAC, which wasn’t as competitive as the Mountain West is now.

The Spartans won the Mountain West in 2020, a huge accomplishment for the program, and have appeared in bowl games in two of the past three seasons. That’s a credit to the staff and some of the program’s natural advantages — good weather, a strong in-state recruiting base and professional opportunities in Silicon Valley.

Remember this program beat Arkansas in 2019. It gave Auburn all it could handle last season and has now battled USC in 2021 and 2023. All of this despite being at a significant budget disadvantage in relation to Fresno State, San Diego State and Boise State — the programs it is expected to compete with. Maybe some support will start trickling in soon.

San Diego State could serve as a blueprint — a once-underachieving program that turned into a solid, stable winner once it received the proper investment.

So while USC and San Jose State shared the same field on Saturday and they technically compete for the same national championship, the two are playing a completely different game.

“It doesn’t matter what it is. We’ll find a way forward,” Brennan tells his staff that Monday. “That’s all we can do is find a way to play good football.”

(Top photo: Antonio Morales / The Athletic)

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