Auburn, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - The fifth-ranked Auburn Tigers will wrap up a two-game season-opening homestand at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night as they take on the San Jose State Spartans in non-conference action.
SJSU kicked off its season with a solid home win over an FCS opponent last week, tackling North Dakota at home on Aug. 28, 42-10. The Spartans also opened up the 2013 campaign with a victory (24-0 over Sacramento) before falling into a three-game losing streak.
While most teams begin the season with a non-conference game, Auburn was thrown right into the fire with an SEC bout at home versus Arkansas. It struggled in the first half against a team that went winless in the league last year -- the matchup was tied 21-21 at intermission -- but it took control after the break to cruise to a 45-21 win.
"I'm very proud of our guys coming out facing an SEC team," head coach Gus Malzahn said. "We talked to our guys and told them it would be a dogfight. I'm proud of the way our guys responded in the second half."
The Spartans and the Tigers have never before faced off on the football field.
In its first game with a new quarterback after the offseason departure of David Fales (8,382 yards, 66 TDs in 2012 and 2013), SJSU barely skipped a beat in racking up 406 yards.
"I was encouraged by the game we had tonight," head coach Ron Caragher said. "I like how we came out fast. On offense we spread the ball around effectively and ran it well."
Blake Jurich was nearly perfect in his debut as the starter, completing 22- of-25 passes for 250 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was also a factor on the ground, rushing in a two-yard score in the first quarter.
Jurich had a strong connection with Tyler Winston, who finished with 10 catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Hansell Wilson was also explosive with 85 yards on just four receptions.
Thomas Tucker garnered most of the work out of the backfield with 20 carries for 81 yards. Brandon Monroe (nine carries, 32 yards, TD) was also involved.
Defensively, the Spartans had little trouble handling the FCS squad, holding North Dakota to a mere 244 yards and 12 first downs.
Christian Tago and Travis Raciti both registered a team-high six tackles. Forrest Hightower (five tackles) had 2.5 TFL, Cleveland Wallace picked off a pass and Tony Popovich had a sack and a forced fumble.
Auburn's offense showed very little rust in its opener with 595 yards and displayed excellent balance and versatility with its two vastly different signal callers.
With Nick Marshall serving a suspension in the first half, Jeremy Johnson briefly turned the Auburn offense into a high-powered passing attack, completing 12-of-16 attempts for 243 yards and two touchdowns. After intermission, Marshall returned, and while his numbers were modest (4-of-6, 50 yards, 19 rushing yards, TD), his read-option portion of the playbook helped the team to finish with 302 yards on the ground.
"We scripted plays for (Johnson), and he got off to an outstanding start," Malzahn said. "We put Nick in the second half and he did some really good things, both running and passing...Nick is still our quarterback, but Jeremy will have a role. We talked in the offseason about giving him more of different situations and packages."
It appears that Cameron Artis-Payne will take over as the featured back this season, and he got off to an outstanding start against Arkansas with 177 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Corey Grant showed excellent explosion as well with 87 yards and a score on just 10 touches.
D'haquille Williams showed great chemistry with Johnson in the first half and finished with nine receptions for 154 yards and a touchdown. Melvin Ray caught just two balls but had 77 yards and a score.
After a slow start, the Tigers' defense buckled down after halftime by pitching a shutout over the final 30 minutes. The unit allowed just 328 yards and held Arkansas to only 2-of-10 on third down.
Jermaine Whitehead returned an interception 33 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to effectively put the game away, and he also finished with a team-high seven tackles. Cassanova McKinzy had a big game at linebacker with six tackles, 2.0 TFL, a sack and a forced fumble.