San Jose State vs. Auburn Complete Game Preview
With a fantastic second-half performance and an important conference win now in the rearview mirror, the Auburn Tigers will begin a trio of nonconference games this Saturday with a home matchup against San Jose State.
Auburn's offense was back to its impressive ways in the season-opening victory against Arkansas, compiling 45 points and almost 600 yards while giving a half to both quarterbacks Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson. The Tigers defense turned the tie game into a convincing Auburn win by shutting out the Razorbacks after halftime and showing signs of improvement in several areas.
This weekend, head coach Gus Malzahn and Auburn will focus on improving its overall game with a visit from a team that isn't expected to trigger any upset alerts.
The Spartans were a .500 team last year out of the Mountain West and had to replace several key players from a team that struggled with superior teams away from home. A commanding 42-10 season-opening win against FCS-level North Dakota will give Ron Caragher and Co. some momentum heading into Jordan-Hare Stadium, but it appears that a lot of things will have to fall their way in order to pull off the shocker.
Before we get to the breakdown of Auburn's first nonconference game of the season, here are all of the game's basics you need to know:
San Jose State Keys to Victory
Jump on the Defense Early
If the Spartans are going to stay in the game, they will want to take their offensive chances early.
Coordinator Ellis Johnson and the Auburn defense proved last week that it still is one of the best nationally at making important halftime adjustments, and a comeback looks unlikely for a team that struggled in the second half of games away from home last season.
San Jose State has a couple of weapons to pull off a few big plays against an Auburn team still trying to find its best 11 on the field. The rushing attack doesn't look like it will be much of a factor like it was with Arkansas, but if the Spartans can get behind the Tigers secondary, things could get interesting early at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Ball security will continue to be a work in progress for the Tigers, who fumbled the ball twice in the season opener and lost one of them.
A shorter field will always be better for an underdog on the road, so the Spartans should look to strip the ball from Auburn's skill players and force Marshall to make risky throws in his first start of the season.
While San Jose State won each game it finished with a positive turnover margin in 2013, it was blown out in the two road games in which it didn't record a takeaway. With the matchup heavily favored toward the Tigers, the Spartans would do well to be aggressive and also take their chances on defense.
Control the Ball
If San Jose State can pick its spots and keep the game close with Auburn, it will want to keep the ball out of the hosts' hands, especially if points are a necessity.
Auburn's offense can score quickly from any part of the field, as it showed against Arkansas with a couple of long drives that lasted only a few minutes. Arkansas attempted this method last Saturday, but it wasn't able to get any momentum going on offense out of the locker room.
This plan of attack will most likely be used by any of Auburn's opponents that don't employ a hurry-up, no-huddle offense, and it has the potential to work—if you can keep moving the chains and put points on the board when you're in scoring range. In order to pull off a monster upset, San Jose State will have to frustrate the Auburn defense in this fashion and keep the Auburn offense waiting.
Auburn Keys to Victory
Just Take Care of Business
This isn't rocket science. If the Tigers avoid big mistakes, they should roll over San Jose State.
With Marshall set to start once again and several position battles starting to come into focus, this game will be a great opportunity for the offense to establish a solid rhythm heading into the trip to Kansas State. The defense will look to improve on its first-half performance against Arkansas and keep up the momentum from a commanding second half in the season opener.
It's unclear exactly how good San Jose State will be this season after a big win against a FCS opponent, but it shouldn't be enough to make Auburn sweat if Malzahn's squad simply does what it is supposed to in a "paycheck game."
Don't Let Them Hang Around
Monumental upsets like a San Jose State win over Auburn almost always involve the underdog staying within striking distance or holding a slight lead through halftime and into the second half.
The Tigers' tendency to start quickly on offense should allow them to put up points in bunches, and it will be on the defense to get the stops needed to pull away early.
The quicker Auburn puts this contest out of reach, the quicker it can put in its backups, which is often very important in nonconference games such as this one.
Slow Down the Passing Attack
The Spartans threw the ball more than they ran it last season, and they were among the nation's best in efficiency under star signal-caller David Fales.
San Jose State has a new quarterback this season, but several of the key playmakers from years past are back for another year in the system. New starter Blake Jurich continued Fales' emphasis on spreading the wealth against North Dakota last week, while the rushing attack just had an average performance.
Auburn is still looking to improve in pass defense, and San Jose State will provide a decent test with the likes of Jurich and wide receiver Tyler Winston. One matchup that will help the Tigers is in the trenches, as San Jose State is starting two freshmen and a sophomore on the offensive line. Look for Auburn's experience and power to win out and cause havoc for what the Spartans will want to do through the air.
San Jose State Players to Watch
QB Blake Jurich
Jurich is early in his fifth season at San Jose State, but he made his first career start last Thursday night against the FCS' North Dakota.
The senior is looking to replace the production of star quarterback David Fales, who threw for more than 4,000 yards and exactly 33 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons for the Spartans. Jurich only threw three incompletions in his 250-yard, three-touchdown debut, but he only has a tiny amount of experience against power-conference teams from his time as Fales' backup.
With starting running back Jarrod Lawson out again Saturday due to suspension, the offensive focus will be on a team veteran making his first road start against an elite team. The Spartans have the weapons Jurich needs to succeed through the air, but only time will tell if the SJSU quarterback has what it takes to keep it close in Auburn. He's entering completely new territory.
WRs Tyler Winston and Tyler Ervin
Winston was the Spartans' leading returner at wide receiver after posting 858 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013. The converted defensive back became a reliable go-to target for Fales around the halfway point of SJSU's season, and he finished the year with 14.8 yards per catch.
Now that the speedy Chandler Jones is gone, Winston is the team's true No. 1 receiver, and he showed it in the season opener. Winston caught 10 passes—the next highest mark on the team was four—for 96 yards and two touchdowns. The sophomore did not play in San Jose State's first three games last season, so Saturday's trip to the Plains will be his first test against a defense from one of the top conferences.
Ervin is also an option for Jurich out wide, but he will be more of a playmaker in the return game. The junior took a punt back for a touchdown against North Dakota for the fourth special teams touchdown of his collegiate career. He missed the entire 2013 season with an injury, and his presence has already been a boost for a unit that could grab some much-needed momentum on the road Saturday.
DB Maurice McKnight
Defense was a constant struggle for the Spartans last season, but new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson—the former Texas and Michigan assistant, not the massive left tackle Auburn fans are more familiar with—seems to have already made a difference for Caragher's squad.
The former 3-star McKnight was a star in the win against North Dakota, notching five solo tackles and forcing a fumble on a sack in his debut. McKnight played both safety and cornerback for a Spartans secondary that had to replace a pair of starters, and his versatility could be a bonus against Auburn's high-powered offense.
“He is a young man who is mature beyond his years,” Caragher said, per the San Jose Mercury News' Jimmy Durkin. “He’s really evolved into playing a lot of positions on the field. We’re excited about that.”
Auburn Players to Watch
QB Jeremy Johnson
How about an encore?
Johnson had a fantastic first start against an SEC opponent last Saturday, completing his first eight passes en route to a 243-yard, two-touchdown performance in just one half. The sophomore did not attempt a run against Arkansas, but he didn't have to with the way he threw the ball against the divisional rival.
Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have repeatedly said Johnson will have a bigger role in Auburn's offense as Marshall reclaims the starting job. While Johnson will most likely get some second-half snaps in what could be a blowout win against the Spartans, his season-opening showcase could have a big effect on what he does this season when the first-team offense is still on the field.
WR D'haquille Williams
Williams picked up right where he left off from the spring's A-Day Game and then some last Saturday, recording the biggest single-game receiving performance for the Tigers since Darvin Adams in the 2010 SEC title game.
The former junior college star had no problem getting open against the Razorbacks, so it's safe to say he'll have plenty of opportunities to shine as Auburn works on its still-developing pass attack. Whether he lines up on the inside or the outside, the attack-minded Williams provides matchup problems for any defense.
One area to keep an eye on for Williams is what he does after the catch. He admittedly tried to do too much in keeping plays alive against Arkansas, which sometimes led to broken tackles with little to no yardage gained. Against a team like San Jose State, look for "Duke" to get the ball and go full speed ahead for those precious yards-after-catch.
Star Robenson Therezie
After it looked like Auburn would be without its star at Star safety/linebacker due to an undisclosed eligibility issue, Therezie was cleared the night before the season opener.
That turned out to be fantastic news for Auburn, which got a good performance with a couple of massive second-half plays from the senior. Therezie's hit on Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen led to a game-changing pick six, and he forced a fumble on the Razorbacks' next drive that killed their offensive momentum.
Therezie will be a key presence again in coverage, run support and pass rush for the Tigers when they go up against San Jose State's defense. Auburn's defense usually plays better when Therezie is at the top of his game, so look for him to be the spark once again this Saturday.
What They're Saying
San Jose State
Head coach Ron Caragher on impact of new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, per Durkin:
From the moment when Greg interviewed, he talked about what he wants: the fundamentals of tackling, of breaking down, of pursuing, the angles you take in pursuit. It was nice to see that implemented in spring, implemented in the fall and I think we saw it (Thursday). It was very effective.
Caragher on senior quarterback Blake Jurich, also per Durkin:
I think it’s important trying to get off to a good start and he did. He made some good decisions. He threw the ball well. His choice-making was good and then we saw him tuck the ball. You always want that confidence and not only does he gain confidence but the team gains confidence in him.
Head coach Gus Malzahn on San Jose State's overall quality:
We are playing a very solid San Jose State team. They played very well their first game and they have had a little extra time to rest and prepare; they played on Thursday. Last time they played a ranked opponent—Fresno State—they won, so we will have to be prepared. We will have to play well.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson on how the Tigers' defense needs to improve, per AL.com's Joel A. Erickson:
We had a dad-gum face mask penalty on a third-down stop, we had another one, we caused a fumble, we don't get it. We had some real big opportunities where that crucial play takes those next six plays or three plays off the board. We've got to start finishing and making those plays.
The Tigers would love to get a repeat of last season's game against Arkansas State and Florida Atlantic—minus the Nick Marshall injury in the latter—and they should get it this Saturday.
San Jose State has a decent chance to be a bowl team this season after a tough 6-6 record in Caragher's first season, and the program has come close to big road upsets a couple times the last few seasons. However, against Top 10 teams like Auburn, the Spartans usually fade early.
Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and the rest of the Auburn offense should have an easy time moving the ball Saturday as it looks to become one of the nation's best attacks. I look for them to get off to another fast start and continue to fine-tune their craft against an inferior opponent.
I don't see this Auburn defense completely shutting down the San Jose State offense, which has a couple of playmakers out wide who could pull off a few big plays. But the lessons learned from the first half of the Arkansas game should be motivation for a big game from a unit that wants more respect in the conference and the country.
If the defense makes a few quick stops in the first quarter, this one could get ugly in a hurry, especially with the way Auburn's offense has played since the second half of the 2013 season.
Auburn 55, San Jose State 17
How do you see this game shaking out, and what's your final score prediction? Let me know in the comments below.