The San Jose State Spartans open the 2021 college football season on Saturday night when they play host to the FCS Southern Utah Thunderbirds, whose only win in their pandemic-shortened spring season came on the road while the Spartans finished a perfect 6-0 at home. This matchup will be Southern Utah’s first of two consecutive games against FBS opponents, as the Thunderbirds will head to Tempe to take on Arizona State next Thursday night.
Last season was a bumpy road for many teams across the country, but San Jose State was clearly one of the most adept at navigating the constant hurdles. The Spartans opened with four straight wins against Mountain West foes before seeing two straight games canceled and declared “no contest.” San Jose State bounced back and finished the regular season with two more wins, then topped Boise State 34-20 for the school’s first conference championship since 1991. The momentum came to a screeching halt, however, as the Spartans fell 34-13 to MAC champion Ball State in the Arizona Bowl.
While San Jose State suffered only one loss, one win was all that Southern Utah managed in its condensed spring 2021 campaign, a 34-24 road victory against Cal Poly. One encouraging takeaway from the Thunderbirds' 1-5 record, however, is that no single loss was by more than eight points. In fact, four of them were decided by three points or fewer. They’ll look to extract some confidence out of having so many close endings and aim to finish games on a better note, especially with both of their road losses coming by just a single point.
These two programs have not met since 2010, a thriller along the coast in San Jose. The Thunderbirds led by the slimmest of margins in the final two minutes, but a last-second San Jose State touchdown capped off a 48-yard drive to turn an 11-10 deficit into a 16-11 come-from-behind win.
Southern Utah at San Jose State
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Jose State -22
When Southern Utah Has The Ball
Despite the 1-5 record, offense was hardly the problem for Southern Utah in the spring as the Thunderbirds finished with a top-15 passing offense (283.8 ypg, 12th in FCS) and finished 28th and 29th, respectively, in scoring (26.5 ppg) and total offense (382 ypg) while allowing less than a sack per game.
Quarterback Justin Miller enters his redshirt sophomore season after a bright start to his college career, when he threw for 284.3 yards per game and 15 touchdowns to finish top 10 in the FCS in both categories. Starting all six games, he threw five touchdown passes in the season opener against Northern Arizona, with a three-touchdown game two weeks later against Cal Poly and a season-high 422 passing yards in the one-point loss at Idaho. Of his 15 touchdowns through the air, 11 went to Brandon Schenks (six) and Landen Measom (five), which slotted them in at No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the FCS. That made up for a virtually nonexistent run game, which surpassed the century mark in just three of the Thunderbirds’ six games as Dayne Christiansen and Jay Green combined for just 73.2 yards per game on the ground.
San Jose State was remarkable on defense throughout the 2020 season, holding five of eight opponents to 20 or fewer points. One of the major drivers of such strong performances was its stingy red-zone defense, as the Spartans allowed scores on just 72 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20-yard line, good for ninth in FBS and fifth among teams with 25 or more red-zone trips faced on defense. They were led by defensive lineman Cade Hall, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American in 2020 — the first SJSU defensive lineman selected as an All-American in eight years — thanks to a campaign in which he tied for second nationally with 10 total sacks and tied for 12th with 1.7 tackles for a loss per game. Hall certainly wasn’t the only standout on the unit, as first-team All-Mountain West defensive end Viliami Fehoko led the conference and tied for 17th nationally with 12.5 TFLs in 2020.
When San Jose State Has The Ball
After a 17-6 win against Air Force to open the 2020 season, San Jose State scored at least 28 points in each of its next six games, reaching the 30-point mark in five of the six. It was the aerial attack — patrolled by rising sixth-year “super senior” Nick Starkel — that led the way with nearly 300 passing yards per game, good enough for the third-best mark in the conference and a top-20 finish in the FBS.
One key factor to the offense’s strong play in 2020 was the performance of the offensive line, as the Spartans allowed just one sack per game (eight in total), which was the eighth-best rate in FBS last season. Such success seems poised to continue with all five of the projected starters up front being upperclassmen, anchored by sixth-year left tackle and Outland Trophy watch list selection Jack Snyder, who was also named the Mountain West Player of the Year by Pro Football Focus — becoming the only offensive lineman across all 10 FBS conferences to earn such recognition.
While the Thunderbirds struggled to stop opponents from scoring (27.3 ppg) or marching up and down the field (412.7 ypg) last season, Southern Utah led the Big Sky with three sacks per game, which finished as a top-20 mark in FCS. Both of the team’s — and conference’s — top two finishers in that category, linebacker La'akea Kaho'ohanohano-Davis (7th in FCS) and defensive lineman Francis Bemiy, will look to keep the Spartans behind the line of scrimmage after the pair combined for 1.87 sacks per game in 2020.
Coming off its first conference championship in 29 years and the first season since 2012 being ranked in the top 25 in both the AP and Coaches polls to finish a season, San Jose State features an intriguing mix of internal preseason anticipation and a largely under-the-radar external perspective. Look for head coach Brent Brennan — entering his fifth season at the helm after being named Mountain West Coach of the Year and finishing fifth in the AP Coach of the Year voting in 2020 — to have these Spartans ready to prove that last season’s momentum was hardly a fluke and that sustained success is undoubtedly within reach.
Prediction: San Jose State 30, Southern Utah 13
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.