WASHINGTON — The best season in San Jose State history? There’s a good case for it, yet it’s one nobody could make if the person with the awkward role of interim, on-the-way-out coach hadn’t finished the job.
The Spartans are done for the year with an 11-2 record. Ten wins go to Mike MacIntyre, who rebuilt a program that was 1-12 just two years ago before leaving this month for a better payday at Colorado.
Win No. 11 goes to defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who was put in charge and got to speak in a victorious locker room after Thursday’s 29-20 win over Bowling Green in the Military Bowl.
"I didn’t cry, but I wanted to,” Baer said. "I stood tall, took a couple of deep breaths. It’s been a little emotional the last few days.”
Baer wanted to stay at San Jose State, but he was passed over for the full-time job in favor of San Diego’s Ron Caragher and plans to follow MacIntyre to the Buffalos. With all those distractions going on, the No. 24 Spartans could be forgiven for being a little rattled ahead of their first bowl game since 2006.
Instead, San Jose State, in the national rankings for the first time since 1975, capped the year with a seven-game winning streak for its first 11-win season since 1940, recovering quickly from the shock of MacIntyre’s departure with the help of Baer.
"We were kind of, ‘What’s going to happen next year?”’ defensive end Travis Johnson said. "We started thinking too much, and we started trying to figure out what coaches are going to be here, what players are going to be here, and then coach Baer came in the next day and he basically told us that it doesn’t matter — and what we set out to do, we’re going to accomplish.
"It stopped all the thought of coach Mac being gone. We still thought about him, but it was, ‘OK, he’s somewhere else. We’re going to go and get the win and we’re going to do it with what we have.”’
What they do have is a stellar quarterback, David Fales, who led the nation in completion percentage in the regular season. The dart-throwing transfer started strong and finished stronger in the wind and cold at RFK Stadium, completing 33 of 43 passes for 395 yards and two touchdowns.
Fales led the drive that set up Austin Lopez’s 27-yard field goal with 4:43 remaining, and De’Leon Eskridge’s 1-yard run with 2:34 left provided the insurance. Fales was an unknown when he arrived on campus in the spring, but he quickly became the offensive leader the Spartans needed.
"He was like that puzzle piece that was able to make everything come together,” Johnson said.
Bowling Green (8-5) had a similar turnaround, improving from 2-10 in 2010 under coach Dave Clawson. A defense that allowed only 15.8 points per game in the regular season — ninth best among FBS schools — did a decent job against a San Jose State team that was averaging 35.3 points.
But give Fales enough chances and he’ll find a way to put points on the board. He went over the 4,000-yard passing mark for the season, hitting Kyle Nunn for a 33-yard score to give the Spartans a first-quarter lead and finding the stutter-stepping Chandler Jones for an 18-yard reception that put San Jose State back in front, 19-13, in the third quarter.
Bowling Green retook the lead in the fourth quarter with a 68-yard drive, finished off by John Pettigrew’s 1-yard run with 10:26 remaining.
But Fales went 7 for 10 on a 68-yard march that got well within range for Lopez, who had a perfect season — making all 17 of his field goal attempts. The Spartans then forced a turnover that led to Eskridge’s clinching touchdown.
Lopez was less fortunate as an emergency punter after Harrison Waid was injured on San Jose State’s first punt of the game. Lopez’s first punt was blocked, setting up a Bowling Green field goal.
It was the first of two blocked punts in the game. San Jose State’s Bene Benwikere got his hand on one in the second half. The ball went out of the end zone for a safety that cut Bowling Green’s lead to 13-12.
Soon, Fales had the Spartans back in front.
"Two years ago, we were 2-10,” Clawson said. "We were awful. A year ago we made a nice step that we went from being awful to average. I felt this was a team that could make that next step, and we won three more games. ... We found a way to get from five to eight. Now we have to find a way to get from eight to 11.”
The Military Bowl was supposed to pit Army against an ACC team, but Army isn’t bowl-eligible and the ACC didn’t have enough bowl-eligible schools to fulfill its bowl tie-ins. As a result, there was little excitement for the game in the nation’s capital. The upper deck of RFK Stadium was virtually empty during the second half of the MAC-WAC matchup, and the attendance was announced as 17,835.
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