Fresh off a disappointing loss to rival UTEP, the Aggies head to the Bay Area to take on the winless but much-improved San Jose State Spartans. While the Aggies were handing a loss on the Big Ten's Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Spartans were hanging tough with the Pac 12's UCLA and the Spartans narrowly lost to Nevada last weekend. We've enlisted the help of SJSU beat writer Jeff Faraudo to help give Aggie fans an idea of what to expect when these two teams take to the field on Saturday afternoon.
San Jose State is 0-3 on the season but after a rough game against Stanford, the Spartans have had a couple of close games against UCLA and Nevada and had a couple breaks gone their way they could easily be sitting at 2-1. How much have the Spartans improved over last year and is this a team that's on the verge of a breakout?
Their record notwithstanding, the Spartans clearly are better than a year ago. They are deeper and stronger and benefit from being in coach Mike MacIntyre's system for a second year. Injuries stripped away all their depth on the defensive line a year ago, but now they have 21 d-linemen in their program. They also have the full complement of 85 scholarships for the first time, having rectified some long-standing academic shortcomings. They believe they are close to making a breakthrough and that seems reasonable based on the progress they've made in each game so far. They aren't a conference title contender, but they should begin to win some games.
With the graduation of Jordan La Secla at quarterback, the Spartans are still searching for that replacement with Coach MacIntyre saying that he'll likely play both Matt Faulkner and Dasmen Stewart against New Mexico State on Saturday. What do each of the quarterbacks bring to the table and who needs to become the full-time starter for the Spartans to be successful?
I would expect both quarterbacks to play Saturday unless Faulkner gets the offense moving well early. He has been announced as the starter and is fully recovered from the concussion he sustained in the opener vs. Stanford. Faulkner is far more experienced, reads defenses better and is a more accurate passer. Stewart gives SJSU a running threat at the position out of the option, but is still raw and very much a work in progress. I will be surprised if a healthy Faulkner doesn't establish himself as the regular starter for the rest of the season.
Obviously Duke Ihenacho is the team's best defensive player (and maybe the best defensive player from both teams) but who are some other defensive players that fans should be on the lookout for on Saturday?
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Travis Raciti has played well enough to start every game. The coaches have been pleased with his performance so far. Sophomore linebacker Keith Smith was forced into action as a true freshman last season and has grown into a dependable young leader on defense.
With the loss of starting quarterback Andrew Manley, the Aggies will turn to Matt Christian who is seeing his first action of the year. What do you expect the Spartan defense to try to do to rattle him and how much do you think their defensive game plan might have changed facing Christian, more of a mobile threat, than Manley, much more of a deep passing threat?
The Spartans, obviously, are familar with Christian, whose last-second touchdown pass beat them at Las Cruces in 2010. San Jose understands he presents more of a running threat, but the Spartans have faced consecutive teams in UCLA and Nevada that feature some option in their attack. And they don't expect any major schematic changes in the Aggies' offense just because of a change at QB.
The Spartans have a pair of very good players in wide receiver Noel Grigsby and running back Brandon Rutley. How much have opposing defenses keyed on these two players in the first three games and what will SJSU try to do to get the ball in these two players' hands more against the Aggies?
Rutley will get the ball a lot given that junior David Freeman is out indefinitely with a broken arm. Rutley, who also handles kickoff return duties, had a strong game carrying the ball from scrimmage against Nevada and is the team's only healthy running back with any real experience. Grigsby has not been targeted as often this season as the Spartans would like, probably because of the inconsistency at quarterback. Mike MacIntyre believes his receiving corps is the strength of the team and certainly they will try to get the ball to Grigsby more often.
Who are a player on offense and a player on defense that might have not made much of an impact through the first three games but are ready for a breakout game?
Keep an eye on tight end Ryan Otten, who is healthy again and caught a 35-yard pass in the Nevada game. He's a big target over the middle and able to run after the catch. Mohammad Marah, a fifth-year senior defensive end, has battled injuries the past two seasons but has stayed healthy so far and brings great experience to the defense.
These two teams have played very close games the past two seasons but the Spartans are a 9.5 point favorite heading into Saturday. Do you see that much of a difference between these two teams and how much of a motivating factor is last year's last-second win by the Aggies (with the TD pass being thrown by Matt Christian)?
Hard to say a winless team deserves to be a 9.5 point favorite over a team that has beaten a Big Ten opponent, but point spreads have as much to do with trying to get bets balanced on both sides as they do anything else. The Spartans certainly remember last year's game vs. NMSU, but mostly they are hungry to get a victory. Over anyone.
The Aggies will win this game if…
They are able to generate a running game similar to what they had in the win over Minnesota, which would make life easier for Christian and allow him time to get the ball to Taveon Rogers and Todd Lee.
The Spartans will win this game if…
They get solid play from Faulkner, minimize mistakes and keep the Aggies' offense from cranking up. San Jose State seems unprepared still to win a high-scoring game.