military bowl trophyAfter a tumultuous month that included the loss of their coach, the naming of an interim one and finally the hiring of the new guy who stayed in the background as the season concluded, San Jose State got back yesterday to what mostly defined their season: slinging the football around and winning close, entertaining games.

The 2012 Spartans capped the best year in team history (no need to qualify it with an “arguably,” let’s just call it what it is) with a hard fought win over Bowling Green, whose top-ten ranked defense was as advertised, in the Military Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington DC. The two teams traded leads, offered up some amateurish special teams play at times, and both played to their strengths as it was the Spartans’ high powered passing attack that was able to overcome the Falcons’ stingy defense in the 29-20 victory.

The game featured a lot of what you would expect out of San Jose State this year: High efficiency and a lot of passing yards from game MVP David Fales (33-43, 395 yards, two TDs, zero picks), blue collar-type high production from all-time school receptions leader Noel Grigsby (nine catches, 134 yards, zero TDs) and a bend-but-don’t-break performance by the defense that produced a dramatic, game-sealing play right when it needed it.

With less than five minutes to play in the game, Bowling Green took possession of the ball down by two at their own 23 yard line. WAC Defensive Player of the Year Travis Johnson broke free from the left side of the line and blindsided quarterback Matt Schilz, forcing a fumble that was scooped up by linebacker Keith Smith. Five plays later De’ Leon Eskridge (who became the first SJSU back to rush for 1000 yards in a season since 2006) put the game away with a one-yard touchdown run.

It was more than just an exclamation point on a great season; it was the exact ending the Spartans needed as they transition from the Mike MacIntyre era and into that of Ron Caragher. A loss would have left them at a still solid 10-3, but with no final national ranking (they entered the game ranked 24th) and plenty of questions about whether they will continue on the trajectory they were on during MacIntyre’s tenure.

Now Caragher can hit the recruiting trail next month armed with the proof that MacIntyre wasn’t the only force behind the Spartans’ winning season; that good players can and will continue to come to San Jose State, and that they can be a championship caliber team as they move into the Mountain West in 2013. While he has heavy shoes to fill, Caragher has a roster loaded with experience heading into next season, most importantly at quarterback.

SOME NOTES IN THE AFTERMATH

-Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the cross country trek to the Military Bowl. Judging by why I saw on TV, neither could anyone else, even the citizens of DC. Of course it doesn’t look good in terms of future bowl invites for San Jose State, and while I’d like to think they will be cut some slack for the fact that the game was across the country from their campus, in the middle of the week two days after Christmas, I know they won’t be. That stigma as a team that does not travel well isn’t going anywhere for a while.

Nonetheless, I watched the game from The Garret in Campbell, a popular family-oriented sports bar. I’m no historian of the place, but I can say with almost certainty that it was the first time San Jose State was on every single one of their TVs. And with each score, fumble, big hit, you name it, the crowd in that place got more and more animated. Make no mistake, this was not a March Madness crowd that called in sick to work and was going out of their minds for eight straight hours.

But to see people captivated by this team (and I know it was like this at many places around town), applauding the team at the end, is one last testament to how far they have come in a short amount of time (even with an otherwise friendly bartender repeatedly asking if San Jose State had ever even been to a bowl game). It felt like I was in a bizzaro world when an old timer named Hal sat next to me, ordered an iced-tea in a plastic cup and slugged down peanuts as he casually remarked that the team wasn’t as hot without MacIntyre on the sideline, as if he was in West Texas and listening to Permian High on the radio. Hopefully 2012 was the first step toward cultivating a fanbase that reaches beyond just the hardcore alumni.

David Fales is poised for a big senior season

David Fales is poised for a big senior season

-David Fales continued to shine when the spotlight was on him. What he has done as a JC transfer has been remarkable, as he set every single-season passing record at SJSU. At 6’3, 220 pounds, Fales has NFL size and given his extremely accurate campaign in 2012 should enter 2013 to much fanfare outside of just San Jose. While we all know mid-major players never get to contend for the Heisman, he may have positioned himself for some mention the same way previous mid-major quarterbacks have (Kellen Moore, Case Keenum, Colt Brennan). And to think how many of us were fired up when Tate Forcier transferred in last year (and never played a down).

-True freshman kicker Austin Lopez finished the season a perfect 17 for 17 on field goal tries, and even did some punting after regular punter Harrison Waid was injured in the first quarter on a play in which he was bumped, then went ballistic after there was no flag, prompting anyone who watched to wonder if he injured himself by simply getting pissed. A Texas native, Lopez is yet another example of the fantastic recruiter that is Mike MacIntyre.

-Interim coach Kent Baer did a remarkable job getting the team to regroup the past few weeks and leading them to the bowl victory. It was also very clear that the team was very invested in him as their leader, prompting me to wonder if maybe he might have been the better choice to replace Mac. Far be it from me to second-guess athletic director Gene Bleymaier (and I have no reason to be cynical of the Caragher hire) but it will be tough to replace Baer at SJSU, who is believed to be following Mac to Colorado after being passed over for the head coaching position.

- Mercury News beat writer Jimmy Durkin, who has done a fine job covering the team as possibly the first San Jose State football beat writer ever (not from the campus paper anyway), reported after the game that assistant coaches Terry Malley and Fred Guidici would be staying on the SJSU staff next season. It’s a wise move by Caragher to keep these guys around, as they both have local roots and have been vital to the recruiting process over the last several years.

-Durkin also reported that MacIntyre was “in tears” as he watched the Military Bowl from his home in San Jose. I personally haven’t been shy about my disappointment in the way Mac left, having told the team not to believe rumors of his exit, then six hours later showing up at a press conference in Boulder. There’s also a contingent of Spartan fans that are acting like scorned ex-girlfriends, pretending that he deserves no credit for the team’s success and ignoring the fact that Colorado quadrupled his salary.

Exit aside, the man deserves more credit than any single person, and I find his claims of tears to be genuine; the culmination of three years of incredibly hard work, a determined effort to turn around a program that was on the cusp of elimination. What more can you say about going from 1-12–a bottom feeder team in one of the least prestigious conferences in the country– to 11-2, nationally ranked and moving into a stronger conference where you will immediately compete for a championship? I can’t help but wonder just how far he could have taken this program had he stuck around a bit longer, but I also can’t help but be intrigued at the prospect of Mac turning around Colorado.

-Last but not least, I know that plenty of SJSU alums and fans aren’t letting ESPN.com’s Tim Keown live down comments he made last July after the NCAA dropped the hammer on Penn State, writing that (NCAA president Mark) “Emmert and crew turned Penn State into San Jose State for the foreseeable future.”

We didn’t like being the punching bag for the bad comparison then, and we’re only slightly amused now that he made it in a year in which Penn St wishes it could trade places with the Spartans. The guy is a Bay Area native, he should have known better. No other school, regardless of how dire their football team was or is, deserves to be mentioned in a discussion about a program that harbored a child predator.

Enough with that…on to recruiting season.