Underdog SJSU Spartans eager for challenge to open season against No. 6 USC

Underdog SJSU Spartans eager for challenge to open season against No. 6 USC

SAN JOSE — San Jose State opens the season on Saturday as a four-touchdown underdog against No. 6 ranked USC.

But the Spartans believe that they are more than prepared to compete with a team many believe will be battling for the National Championship this season.

“I’m coming in there trying to prove something,” said SJSU cornerback D.J. Harvey. “I saw the write-ups on us. Even though people don’t pay attention to it, I do.”

SJSU comes into Saturday’s matchup as 31-point underdogs, according to Caesar’s Sportsbook.com.

The Spartans played USC at the Coliseum two years ago, falling 30-7. But those Trojans won just three more games that season, leading to the arrival of head coach Lincoln Riley and a new era in Troy.

USC enters this season in the national championship conversation, led by the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams who is slated to be the top pick in next year’s NFL draft.

“This is the best quarterback I’ve ever seen in college football,” SJSU head coach Brent Brennan said.

Williams, a junior, passed for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns after transferring from the University of Oklahoma.

“It’s all about the small details,” said SJSU safety Tre Jenkins about how the team is preparing to stop Williams. “He exposes every little thing you do. You’ll think you will have the field covered for five or six seconds and get a sack, but he’ll still be running around.”

Joining Williams in the USC backfield is Austin Jones, a former Stanford and Bishop O’Dowd High School running back who rushed for 972 yards and touchdowns last season. The Trojans lost All-American wide receiver Jordan Addison to the NFL Draft, but USC the talented tandem of Tahj Washington and Mario Williams are back after combining for 1,416 yards, 90 receptions and 11 touchdowns in 2022.

“It’s an exciting thing to go out there and play USC,” said defensive lineman Tre Smith. “But I’m just playing the game of football. For me, every game is a game I want to win. I’m not disrespecting anybody. I’ll respect them. But I’m trying to go out there and treat it the same.”

Even with the talent on USC’s offense, the Spartan defense is not intimidated by the challenge ahead of them.

“The approach is the same,” said SJSU safety Chase Williams. “This is a high level quarterback for sure and you gotta respect his game for who he is and what he’s doing. But at the same time, you gotta prepare the same as any other game.”

The last time the Spartans defeated a ranked opponent was in 2013 when SJSU beat the then-No. 16 ranked Fresno State Bulldogs — led by Derek Carr and Davante Adams — 62-52. The last time the Spartans beat a top-10 opponent was in 2000 when they defeated No. 9 TCU at home 27-24.

“I think if you look at the line, we’re definitely underdogs, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Brennan said. “I think that if our players are worried about them showing out, we have a huge problem. That’s not going to look anything like the way we want it to look. We need to play good football and we need to play as a team.”

The Spartans’ defensive line will play a key role in SJSU’s success on Saturday. If the Spartans have one area they could attack, it is the Trojans’ offensive line. Last season, USC gave up 30 sacks which was fourth worst in the Pac-12 and 73rd nationally.

Defensive tackle Soane Toia and Smith headline this year’s front seven and will look to make up for the production of former all-conference defensive tackles Junior Fehoko and Cade Hall.

Toia was part of a six-man line rotation last season while Smith, a highly touted defensive lineman out of Red Mountain High School in Arizona,  is looking to step into a bigger role on the front seven this season.

USC’s offense will get much of the national attention on Saturday, but the Spartans could have one of the better offenses in the Mountain West. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro is coming off a 2022 season in which he threw for a career-high 3,251 yards and a career-high 23 touchdowns.

Cordeiro lost all-conference receiver Elijah Cooks to the NFL, but the Spartans are hoping to see production from receivers Nick Nash and Charles Ross.

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Nash switched positions from quarterback to wide receiver halfway through last season and has looked like Cordeiro’s favorite target through training camp. Ross recorded 509 receiving yards and caught three touchdowns last season.

In the backfield, SJSU retooled their running backs room by adding Utah Tech transfer Quali Conley who rushed for 1,095 yards and eight touchdowns for the Bison last season. Conley will join senior running back Kairee Robinson who was the Spartans’ lead back in 2022.

Brennan said he hopes a rejuvenated running back group will help the Spartans come Saturday.

“I think like everybody else, I’m hopeful that we’re more effective running the ball than we were a year ago,” Brennan said. “Quali has been a great addition to our team … He’s a serious football player. He has a really high care factor. So I think him and Kairee and the rest of that backfield will be really fun to see what they can do.”