SAN JOSE -- The success of last year's San Jose State team is a distant memory, one that fades with each loss.
The Spartans were throttled for the third straight game, falling to Utah State 40-12 in their Mountain West Conference debut Friday before a Spartan Stadium crowd of 10,533 and national television audience on ESPN.
A team that won 11 games and finished last season ranked No. 21 in the country is suddenly searching for answers.
"Just real disappointing, because I think our program went backwards tonight. We're not who we thought we were," said first-year coach Ron Caragher. "I never want to take anything anyway from last year's team. They did a good job. But every year is different."
It may be early, but Caragher seems to already feel the heat being directed at him.
"People can take shots at me," he said. "I don't care. I'm a big boy. I can burden it."
The losses aren't only mounting in the standings. The Spartans lost two significant players to injury.
Senior cornerback Bené Benwikere was carted off the field with an apparent head or neck injury in the third quarter after colliding with teammate Christian Tago while making a tackle. Benwikere's helmet popped off, and he fell to the ground and lay motionless for several minutes.
Trainers and on-site medical personnel placed his neck in a brace, loaded him onto a stretcher and carted him off the field. Benwikere gave a slight wave of his right hand as he exited. He was transported to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose with feeling in all of his extremities.
The Spartans also lost Jabari Carr to a dislocated shoulder, further crippling a once-deep wide receiver corps already missing Noel Grigsby.
SJSU (1-3, 0-1 Mountain West) was surprisingly ineffective on offense. Quarterback David Fales completed 25 of 48 passes for 314 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. It was only the second game of Fales' career without a touchdown.
But the senior quarterback was adamant that it's not time to throw away the season.
"It's week 4, the season is not over," Fales said. "We need to come together. We've got to finish it strong."
The Spartans were penalty-plagued for the second straight game (11 penalties for 108 yards) and handcuffed early by dropped passes, including a potential touchdown. Even automatic kicker Austin Lopez had his first career missed field goal.
It's probably too early for SJSU to begin panicking. The competition has been tough the past three games, and even a Spartans team playing better might still be 1-3. Two losses have been to teams that figure to contend for a conference title (Stanford and Utah State) and the other to an undefeated Minnesota team.
But considering the Spartans' level of play lately, even road games against Hawaii next week and Colorado State the following week could spell trouble.
Things need to turn around quickly for Caragher or the talented team he inherited could be in danger of missing a bowl game -- a potentially damaging development for a program in desperate need of a consistent winner.
"I'm sure the sharks out there are just going to come after us, and that's fine," Caragher said. "I'm the head coach. It should be all on me. Not on the players. But I expect more. I demand more from our players, from our coaches."
Linebacker Keith Smith had 20 tackles -- his second straight game with 20 or more -- and he now has 71 in four games this season. But even he admits the gaudy statistics aren't a positive for a defense showing its youth.
"Some of those tackles should be made by other players," Smith said. "That's where the inexperience comes in. We're learning."
The Spartans hope the learning curve takes a quick and sharp turn upward soon.
Follow Jimmy Durkin at Twitter.com/Jimmy_Durkin.
OCT. 5 GAME
San Jose State (1-3, 0-1 MWC)
at Hawaii (0-3, 0-1), 9 p.m.
Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) at Wash. State
(3-1, 1-0), 7 p.m. ESPN
Stanford visits improved Cougars. PAGE 6
Cal (1-2, 0-0 Pac-12) at Oregon (3-0, 0-0), 7:30 p.m. Pac-12
Ducks offense a huge test for Cal. PAGE 6