Utah takes to the road for the first time this season, as they travel to California to take on the San Jose State Spartans. UteZone caught up with Spartan insider Jackson Moore of InsideTheSpartans.com to get his thoughts on what to expect on Saturday.
UteZone: After two games, SJSU has had wildly different results, getting blown out by Tulsa before doing the same to Portland State. Granted, there's a big difference between the two programs; however, what was the difference in the two games and which version of the Spartans will show up for the Utes?
Jackson Moore: Tulsa and Portland State were certainly two different levels of opposition, but no one expected such a blowout loss at the Golden Hurricane. The storyline for nearly every San Jose State loss in 2015 was that the Spartans fell just short or had command of the game before it turned out of their favor - whether it was at Auburn, Oregon State, or at home versus BYU.
In hindsight, the Spartans suffered greatly from the absence of their two defensive team captains in the season opener. It was not known that the Spartans’ best player, linebacker Christian Tago, would be out to start the season. The senior has only sat out a few games in recent years and his missing presence was evident each time. The Spartans’ other captain, Maurice McKnight, missed the first half due to a targeting penalty in the team’s 2015 bowl game. The game spiraled out of control in a hurry, but fortunately they bounced back against a very competitive Portland State team.
San Jose State has a balanced team and it is rare that they get thrown off of their game, and for that reason I expect you’ll see the version of the Spartans that played Portland State. SJSU does not have the defense to shut down team, nor the offense to outscore opponents alone, but if both sides of the ball are clicking they always within striking distance.
UZ: Kenny Potter had a monster game against Portland State, accounting for five touchdowns. What can Utah fans expect to see out of Potter? Who does his game compare to?
JM: Kenny Potter has been a polarizing QB for San Jose State. The second-year junior college transfer does not have the most impressive arm, which is frustrating for a school that recently sent David Fales to the NFL. What Potter lacks in arm strength, he makes up for in athleticism and versatility. San Jose State Offensive Coordinator Al Borges has committed the program to running a multiple offense and Potter is an excellent fit. He can play under center or in the shotgun, run the option or throw downfield. No matter the gameplan, Potter is an adequate option for SJSU.
As far as comparison is tough because he is asked to be either a pro-style and a spread quarterback on any given play. Potter can be a dynamic runner when a play breaks and typically has a high completion rate with simple passing plays.
UZ: Besides Potter, what are the strengths of the Spartan offense? What kind of gameplan do you expect out of them and who are the players to watch?
JM: Potter has weapons to work with in the passing game, primarily with star tight end Billy Freeman. The 6-foot-3 tight end is not the most athletic guy there is, but has a knack for finding holes in the defense and using his frame to come down with the ball, especially in the red zone. He finished 48 receptions for 586 yards and 6 touchdowns as a junior. Other receiving targets include USC transfer Rahshead Johnson, promising 6-foot-2 underclassman Justin Holmes and rising sophomore Tre Hartley who leads the team statistically so far.
In the run game, SJSU lost its biggest offensive asset from 2015 in running back Tyler Ervin, now with the Houston Texans. The Spartans don’t have a single replacement, but have used a committee of Washington graduate transfer Deontae Cooper and underclassmen Zamore Zigler and Malik Roberson. The offensive line is a veteran group, but have already suffered some injuries up front. I expect San Jose State to try to establish both the power run game and the spread concepts early to see where they have success and adjust as they go.
UZ: The Spartan defense has given up 80 points in its first two games. What have been the major deficiencies that have led to so many points? Which players on defense are the leaders that Ute fans should be aware of?
JM: The M.O. of the San Jose State defense in the entire Ron Caragher era is the poor run defense. The Spartans have had one of the Mountain West’s most reliable defensive secondaries and sent several players to the professional ranks, but the defensive line and overall run defense have not matched. The Spartans attempted to fix that this offseason with an entire new defensive staff led by Ron English, but the results have not been there yet.
Christian Tago is not expected to play, but he is the undoubted leader of the group. Maurice McKnight is the other team leader from the safety position. Overshadowing the captains have been the team’s tackling leader, sophomore linebacker Frank Ginda, and junior cornerback Andre Chachere who has two interceptions so far this season.
UZ: What is your prediction for the game, including the score?
JM: Because the first two games have been so wildly different as mentioned, it is tough to predict how the Spartans will show on Saturday. There was a lot of optimism going into the season because the team had so many experienced upper classmen and overall returning talent, but the Tulsa outcome has lingering doubt that the Spartans can knock off a Pac-12 program like Utah. I expect the Spartans to be competitive, but not having the star of the defense, Christian Tago, keeps SJSU from containing Utah’s offense for a full 60 minutes. Unless the Spartans can force several Utah turnovers again this week, SJSU leaves the home turf wishing for a few plays back.
Final: Utah 27, San Jose State 17