San Jose State @ Illinois: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season continues on Saturday at 1:00 PM when the San Jose State Spartans travel to Champaign, IL.'s Brad Leshyn breaks down San Jose State in this game preview.

Illini fans remember the San Jose State Spartans all too well. In 2002, they came into Champaign and left with a stunning 38-35 victory which effectively ended that season and was the beginning of the end of the Ron Turner era. Eight Spartans return from that team, including three starters. In 2005, each club boasts a new coach and each is coming off a come-from-behind victory in their respective openers. The Spartans defeated Division 1-AA power Eastern Washington 35-24 after being down 17-7, while the Illini overcame a school-record tying 20-point deficit to defeat Rutgers 33-30. The other time the Illini overcame a deficit that big? In 1999, the Illini overcame a 27-7 deficit to beat Michigan and Super Bowl poster boy Tom Brady in the Big House. That game propelled the Illini towards the Bowl. Are big things on the horizon in 2005? Maybe not quite yet, but a win over a lowly San Jose State squad would be another positive step in the resurrection of Illinois football.

Head Coach
Dick Tomey is also no stranger to the Illini, having beaten them three times in four games during his 14 year tenure at Arizona. This marks his 25th season as a head coach and he is one of only three coaches (along with Bear Bryant and George Welsh) who lead two institutions in career victories. Tomey won 95 for Arizona and 63 for Hawaii. He takes over a struggling program that not only struggles for victories (5 in the last two season), but also fans. He hopes to bring a speedy, aggressive style to San Jose, but he has a long way to go to recreate the 'Desert Swarm' days he once enjoyed in Tucson.

Offensive Preview
The Spartans offense was impressive in the opener as they steamrolled Eastern Washington for 543 total yards. QB Adam Tafralis guides the offense, and he can make things happen with both his arm and his feet. He struggled with a completion percentage of 44.6 in 2004, but he completed 21-of-34 last week for 290 yards. He also scampered for 44 yards and 2 TDs. WR Rufus Skillern could give the Illini secondary fits. He led the Spartans in receiving a year ago, and he had an impressive 2005 debut with 7 catches for 138 yards.

A week ago, the Illini run defense surrendered 175 yards to Rutgers, and a gargantuan offensive line which averages nearly 311 pounds per man, should be able to open up holes for 5'5" RB Yonus Davis, who led a balanced Spartan ground game with 94 yards a week ago. SJSU totaled 253 yards, so it's imperative that Ryan Matha and Chris Norwell can control the line of scrimmage. If they cannot, this game could be much closer than Illini fans hope.

Defensive Preview
The good news for the Spartans is that seven starters return. The bad news is they were part of a unit that surrendered 42.6 points per game a year ago, which included three games where their opponents scored at least 56. Safety Josh Powell is the unquestioned leader, as he is on the watch list for the Bronco Nagurski Award which is annually presented to the nation's top defender. He's their top returning tackler and is a force against the run. He'll need to maintain his punishing style as the Spartans linebacking corps barely averages 200 pounds. Two converted safeties, Bobby Godinez and Eric Wilson, make the move to LB to aid Ezekiel Staples, a converted fullback who had 94 tackles a year ago. Trestin George was the starting running back in the 2002 upset, but now lines up at cornerback. The third year starter has scored a TD five different ways (rush, reception, kickoff return, punt return, and interception return) in his career, but he still struggles at times in coverage. Up front, DT Kinji Green returns and hopes to be joined this week by Anthony Flores, a run stopper who missed the opener due to a transcript issue.

Final Analysis
San Jose State showed some promise a week ago, but let's face it, while the Illini are hardly a powerhouse, they still reside in Division I. Couple that with an Illini team coming off one of its most exhilarating victories (yes, I know it was only Rutgers, but you have to start somewhere...) in years and you have what looks like a lopsided matchup. The Illini defense still has plenty of issues, but they buckled down and held the potent Rutgers offense to only 10 points after the half. A pass rush is still sorely lacking and they need to create turnovers (zero vs. Rutgers), but they should be able to handle a SJSU team that has a long way to go before it is competitive again. Look for the Illini to sustain the momentum they gained last week and win in a walk, 41-13.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • Only one word describes E. B. Halsey's run in overtime: wow. While I still think Pierre Thomas should get the majority of the carries, Halsey showed what he's all about last Saturday. Look for both backs to have strong games again this week.
  • I loved seeing the option incorporated into the Illini offense. When was the last time that happened?
  • To me, the most enduring moment from last week was when Coach Zook ran over to Block I after the game, fists pumping. That's more emotion I've seen from an Illini coach since Mike White, and it's a good start towards getting the kids back at the games.
  • I can't wait to see how Texas and QB Vince Young fares against the brick wall that masquerades as the Ohio State defense. There haven't been too many non-conference games of this magnitude in recent years. It's also pretty amazing to note that they have never once met on the football field.
  • Boy, folks from New Jersey sure are sensitive. I've been there. Three times. It ain't that great. And, yes, I know it's close to NYC.

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