SAN JOSE, Calif. — Jimmy Durkin covers the San Jose State football program for the San Jose Mercury News and knows the program as well as anyone. We asked Durkin five questions to gain better insight on BYU's next opponent.
1. San Jose State is much improved over last season. What are the primary factors that have contributed to such a big improvement?
"Two huge aspects are increased depth and improved conditioning. This is only the second season that SJSU has had the full compliment of 85 scholarships. As recently as two years ago, players who were starters had no fear of losing their jobs because there wasn't anyone capable of taking it from them. Now there is increased competition at each position. That's made the starters better and made players who have to fill in better.
"They've physically improved and that's evident in the second half of games. They've outscored teams 168-81 in the second half, with the third quarter being the biggest difference at 104-34. Their strength-and-conditioning coordinator Dave Forman, who used to work at Stanford, has the team in tremendous shape and so they are able to wear down teams as the game goes on.
"Beyond that, a lot of it goes to the talent. They've gotten great quarterback play from David Fales and already had a great corps of receivers and that passing unit has made a huge impact."
2. How big of a game is this for San Jose State? There's a lot of talk around Provo regarding the perception that San Jose State players have targeted this game all season and are very intent on beating BYU. Is this game that much bigger than other games on the schedule and is the perception valid?
"Coach Mike MacIntyre called this game "one of the biggest games in the modern history of San Jose State football." That caught me a little by surprise because, in reality, the Louisiana Tech game stands a chance to be much bigger. If La. Tech beats Utah State on Saturday, SJSU has a chance to earn a share of the WAC title by beating La. Tech the following week. But that comment spoke to how much focus there is on this game.
"They know this is a chance to make a statement against a team that has a national following. They've received a decent amount of credit for the three-point loss to Stanford, but for the people who just look at wins and losses, that's easy to dismiss. A win over BYU, especially on national TV, would certainly boost the perception of the program."
3. The Spartans obviously have a very good offense. What type of offense do they run and who are the primary playmakers?
"SJSU fancies itself as a pro-style offense and it does play similarly to today's modern NFL offenses. Most plays are run out of the shotgun or pistol formation and they function a decent amount of the time with four- and five-wide sets. Even when they are five wide, the fifth receiver is tight end Ryan Otten, a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award with an NFL future.
"Quarterback David Fales is the primary playmaker. He leads the nation in completion percentage and throws a very accurate ball. Wide receiver Noel Grigsby is undersized, but catches just about everything that comes his way. He's SJSU's career leader in catches and receiving yards. Chandler Jones and Jabari Carr are two other very good receivers. Running back De'Leon Eskridge, a transfer from Minnesota, has had his bursts. He's been shut down by most of the better defenses they've faced."
4. San Jose State has an underrated defense. What type of defense does it run and who are the primary playmakers on that side of the ball?
"The Spartans use primarily a 4-3 set and will flip into the nickel when necessary. Defensive end Travis Johnson is the stud. He's the NCAA's active career leader with 30.0 sacks, which is tied for a WAC and SJSU school record. He's a bit undersized, but plays with a high motor.
"In the secondary, Bene Benwikere has been the impact player. He's got four interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. Both TDs have come in the last two weeks. He had an interception return against Idaho and fumble return against New Mexico State. He also had an interception return for a TD called back against NMSU by a penalty. He started the year as a backup safety and nickel back, but moved into a starting cornerback role due to injury and has twice been the WAC Defensive Player of the Week.
"Defensive tackles Travis Raciti and Anthony Larceval have also been good. Johnson leads the WAC in sacks and Raciti and Larceval are second and fourth, respectively. The defense is prone to allowing big plays, but they are also capable of making big plays of their own."
5. What does San Jose State need to do in order to win Saturday?
"Balance on offense will be key. SJSU didn't establish a running game against Utah State and the Aggies teed off with 13 sacks, which is three more than the combined total the Spartans have allowed in their nine other games. Even though SJSU has proved to be most effective when it's primarily passing, it wants to produce an honest run game to allow the passing game to succeed.
"Defensively, I think they need to force a couple turnovers to set up some short fields. They also need to start fast. They trailed 28-3 in the blink of an eye against Utah State. They rallied back, but not nearly enough. They'll need to keep it close going into halftime and hope their second-half success continues."