When BYU's schedule first game out, most fans probably didn't think much of its matchup against San Jose State. Despite the Cougars' early struggles, some still may chalk this up as an easy win.
Nothing has come easy for this BYU team so far this season, however. Despite their lack of luster as a program, the Spartans could well pose a very good challenge.
In regarding an opponent, many play the game of who-beat-who. BYU players have certainly done this in estimating what type of team San Jose State is.
"You saw them beat Colorado State, who beat Utah State," said defensive lineman Jordan Richardson. "Utah State gave us all that we could handle, so we fully expect that to be the case this week."
BYU running game vs. San Jose State
The Cougar ground attack finally looked like what most were anticipating preseason last week against Utah State. Granted, the Aggie rush defense wasn't the stiffest challenge going in, but BYU accounting for 200 yards rushing is very much a positive.
JJ Di Luigi, Bryan Kariya and Joshua Quezada combined for 32 rushes and 133 yards and will look to do the same this week. The leading rusher, however, was quarterback Riley Nelson, who ran the ball 11 times for 62 yards.
It isn't set in stone that Nelson will be starting at quarterback at this late juncture, but most signs point to him being under center come Saturday. The overall Cougar ground attack will be boosted as a result.
The Spartans come in with stats that show that they can be had on the ground. They've yielded 186 yards per game on a 4.7 yards per carry average to opponents so far this season.
They are coming off a very good performance against Colorado State, however, which saw them only give up 71 yards on a 2.7 yards per carry average.
"They're tough up front," observed tight end Marcus Mathews. "It's not really my area and not really what I've been watching on film because of where I play, but they did well in defending Colorado State last week and came out with a win."
The Spartans operate out of a 4-3 base defense led by outside linebacker Keith Smith, 6-1, 228, who was the WAC freshman of the year last season. Smith leads the Spartan defense in total tackles.
Their other two leaders in tackles are their two safeties, senior Duke Ihenacho, 6-1, 210, and junior James Orth, 6-2, 203. It's generally an expression of how poor a defense is in defending the run when two defensive backs are among the top three tacklers on the team.
Look for the Cougars to run the ball a lot come Saturday night. Regardless of who is under center, fans can expect between 30 and 40 run attempts against what looks to be an exploitable Spartan run defense.
You can't run the ball that many times unless it's seeing some success, but that success should come. The Cougar offensive front has been making strides and they should help provide similar running stats as they did last week.
BYU passing game vs. San Jose State
This is where it gets tricky. Will it be Nelson or Heaps throwing the ball around come Saturday?
Should it be Nelson, fans can look for more shotgun formations, but, ironically, less passing. Should it be Heaps, then the Cougar offense should be going under center more often with a bit more throwing of the football.
The difference shouldn't be all that great, however, with coaches looking to grind it out going forward.
They'll be facing a San Jose pass defense that presents a lot of zone coverage.
"They play softer coverages and they don't blitz very much," observed Mathews. "They like to just drop a lot of guys back and make you find a lot of holes there and make you be patient."
Opponents average 222.8 yards per game through the air and 7.5 yards per pass against the Spartans so far this season. It's a pass defense that features two play-making safeties along with two experienced corners in senior Peyton Thompson, 5-11, 180, and junior Ronnie Yell, 5-10, 181.
"They're not like any defense we've faced so far this year," Mathews said. "They play zone almost all the time and they're athletic. They don't make a lot of mental errors, either, from what we've seen. They know their scheme and they don't make a lot of mistakes."
As Mathews mentioned, the Spartans don't blitz all that much. They've summarily only accounted for three sacks so far this season.
On paper, the San Jose State pass defense appears to be just what the doctor ordered for a struggling Jake Heaps. A zone-heavy system isn't exactly the best defense for a quarterback like Riley Nelson, who is given to run the ball out-of-the-pocket as much as he's given to throw it.
I still fully expect Nelson to be the guy, however, and he should be able to beat the Spartans with a lot of underneath passes going for short to intermediate gains. Don't look for the Cougars to be throwing a lot come Saturday, however.
BYU run defense vs. San Jose State
The Cougar run defense is looking to rebound after a subpar outing against Utah State last week. It was big plays that did them in, with players taking some bad angles and other mental errors providing some huge gains.
"We just need to quit making mental errors," Richardson said. "When we look at film, we're not getting beat by anything an offense is doing, but by us beating ourselves with some dumb mistakes."
Consistency will be key this week for the Cougar front seven. They'll be facing a San Jose offense that is very similar to the team they faced a week ago.
"You watch them on film and they're almost exactly like Utah State; it's almost like we're watching the same team," observed Richardson. "They'll spread you out, but they definitely like to run it right at you, like Utah State did."
The Spartans average 146.8 yards per game on a 4.3 yards per carry average. They feature a running quarterback in Dasmen Stewart, 6-4, 213, who will alternate snaps with Matt Faulkner, 6-2, 204, who is their throwing quarterback.
"That will be a challenge, but it's something I think we've prepared for well in stopping them both," said Richardson. "We just have to be aware of which guy is in there, but, more importantly, stay disciplined, stay with our assignments, contain when their running quarterback is in and we should be fine. They'll be a challenge though, that's for sure."
The stud running back for the Spartans is senior Brandon Rutley, 5-11, 192. There are some injury concerns with him entering Saturday's game, but he expects to play.
"He's very, very good," said Richardson. "He runs the ball very well. He's fast and he'll be one of the best running backs we see this year."
Rutley averages 103 yards per game on a 5.7 yards per carry average. Stewart is the second-leading rusher on the team, averaging 27 yards gained per game on a 5.6 yards per carry average.
It's all about not giving up big plays for this Cougar defense. While they've been able to stuff most rushing attempts up the middle, they've made too many mistakes on the edge, leading to some big gains.
Look for the team to have cleaned up a lot of the mental errors that have plagued them so far this season. With Rutley looking a bit gimpy, the Cougars should be able to hold the Spartans to well below their average and maybe under 100 yards.
BYU pass defense vs. San Jose State
The Cougar pass defense has been relatively solid so far this season. They give up 189.4 yards per game, although they haven't faced a team that likes to throw the ball a lot so far this season.
The Spartans don't look to be a pass-happy team, preferring to use a balanced approach in beating an opposing defense.
They average 200 yards per game through the air and will be looking to get the ball to sophomore Noel Grigsby, 5-11, 170. Grigsby is the team's play-maker and is someone who can torch an opposing defense with his speed.
"They have some fast guys for sure," observed cornerback Corby Eason. "They can beat you deep, they're quick and they're athletic, so we'll have to be ready for that."
Overall, the Spartans don't look to be much of a threat through the air. The Cougar defense should do fine in limiting big plays and keeping the SJSU passing game grounded for the most part.
Prediction: BYU 31 San Jose State 17
The Cougars get a do-over this week against a team that looks very similar to Utah State in schemes and overall approach. Given that they had an extra day to recover and prepare for this week's game, it should provide for some good returns.
Look for BYU to figure some things out this week, especially on offense, and put together its most complete effort of the year. San Jose State looks to have enough to keep it relatively close, but BYU should be able to secure its most comfortable win of the season, regardless.
Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @BrandonCGurney
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company