Spartans very similar to Illini

By Derek Barichello

From the head coach, to the starting quarterback, right down to the punter, San Jose State will have a lot in common with Illinois when it travels to Champaign on Saturday.

Like the Illini, the Spartans won their coach’s debut in comeback fashion, overcoming a 17-7 second-quarter deficit by scoring 28 consecutive points to defeat Division-II opponent Eastern Washington, 35-24.

The Spartans, like the Illini, were also led by an inexperienced quarterback. Sophomore Adam Tafralis, the WAC offensive Player of the Week, threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 44 yards in his Tim Brasic-esque performance.

The Spartans even got a boost from its punter, sophomore Waylon Prather, WAC special teams Player of the Week, who averaged 40.8 yards per punt. Similarly, Illinois’ senior punter Steve Weatherford averaged 40.6 yards per punt.

Most of all, both teams are looking for improvement from its game one performances.

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“You should make your most improvement between your first and second game, and we definitely have to do that,” said Spartans head coach Dick Tomey. “We didn’t play nearly as well as we’re capable. We can play much better.”

With that said, the Spartans were still able to compile 542 total yards on offense, which resembles the Indianapolis Colts, utilizing two tight ends and two wideouts, said head coach Ron Zook.

“You think it’s a simple formation,” Zook said. “But it creates a lot of problems. One of their tight ends can turn into a fullback. They spread you out. And they take out the blitz package.”

As with most teams on the west coast, Zook expects the Spartans to run a fast-paced offense.

“Most teams on the west coast have access to the skill positions,” Zook said. “They like to throw it all over the place.”

One of those talented players the Illini should keep an eye on is wide receiver Rufus Skillern, who recorded his third 100-yard receiving game of his career last Saturday.

The story is different on defense. San Jose State gave up 462 total yards, with 372 coming against the pass.

“We didn’t give a good effort at any position in my view,” Tomey said. “It wasn’t what I really want. We’ll get better, though.”

Tomey said he will make no major changes to his defense to prepare for the Illini’s no-huddle offense.

“If you have a substitution package, like many teams in the NFL do, they wait to see how many receivers are in the game, how many backs and then they put their defense in,” Tomey said. “We have the same defense in the game no matter what.”

Tomey said they will use defensive back/linebacker Eric Wilson as a rover linebacker, so when the offense shows more receivers, he will adjust to the secondary, joining safety Josh Powell, who is on the Bronco Nagurski Award watch list.

In the last meeting between the two teams, the Spartans upset the Illini 38-35 in 2002, at Memorial Stadium. There are eight players on the current roster who were freshmen for that game.

Tomey said he does not want to live in the past.

“It was a great job by San Jose State,” Tomey said, “but we’ve got a whole different team and a whole different staff now.”