It was a familiar scene at Spartan Stadium last Saturday night.

Three-plus quarters of some of the best football the San Jose State squad can put together, against a favored opponent from a more storied program. Like many times before, a sure victory was about to slip away, the way they always seem to do for a team with an inexperienced roster and without much of a winning tradition.

Pardon me if it seems like I am blowing SJSU’s 20-14 victory of Brigham Young out of proportion. Admittedly, it wasn’t even the biggest college football victory in their county this past weekend—we all know Stanford laid claim to that. But when BYU quarterback Riley Nelson again pulled himself off the turf at Spartan Stadium, avoided the grasps of two of the Spartans’ most stout defenders and fired a 20-yard touchdown strike to cut the lead to six with 2:36 remaining, I got a bad feeling.

When the Cougars then executed a successful onside kick and immediately began moving the ball, it felt like déjà vu. I know how this usually plays out, as does any ardent follower of the SJSU program. They made a habit of teasing us with would-be breakthrough victories in the national spotlight during the Dick Tomey era, and even re-ignited the tradition at Stanford Stadium this year in a 20-17 loss to the Cardinal.

There was the wild double-overtime game in 2004 against Boise St (then ranked #14 nationally and looking for its 20th straight victory at Spartan Stadium on national television) that should have ended when the Spartans lined up for a 30-yard field goal in overtime. It wound up being blocked, and the streak continued.

Whenever people look back on that fantastic 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma, they remember the Statue of Liberty, the hook-and-ladder, Ian Johnson on one knee while Chris Myers tells his cheerleader girlfriend he is about to propose to her.

But SJSU fans know that game should have never happened. They remember their regular season game with the Broncos that year, when the Spartans had a 20-12 lead in the fourth quarter of a game they had mostly been in control of. That is, until Boise St. scored with just over five minutes remaining, converted the two-point try, held the ensuing Spartan drive to five plays and out, then returned the punt to the San Jose St. 37 and wound up kicking the game-winner.

Not to be out-done the following year, the Spartans had a second chance to ruin the BCS-Bowl busting aspirations of another conference rival, Hawaii. Yet again on the ESPN airwaves, in a game played out in a mini-monsoon but still offering nearly 1000 yards of total offense, San Jose St. needed only the final four minutes of regulation to surrender a 14-point lead. After fumbling the ball on what should have been the drive that ate up the clock and sealed the win, the Spartans had no answer in overtime as Colt Brennan threw the game-winning touchdown.

So when BYU came up with that onside kick, it was shades of Boise St.’s Marty Tadman returning that punt in 2006. It was shades of the otherwise reliable James Callier coughing up the football to Hawaii in 2007. It was shades of Stanford remembering who they are in Week 1 this season, and taking the game back from San Jose St. right before time ran out.

Then Keith Smith showed up.

The third-year Spartan linebacker, who recorded 19 tackles against BYU in yet another WAC Defensive Player of the Week performance for SJSU, was perhaps the catalyst for San Jose St. finally turning the page.

With 1:16 to play, Smith broke free across the line and hurdled a block attempt from Cougar running back Jamaal Williams, blindsided Nelson and forced the victory-sealing fumble for the Spartans. For the first time in ages, this team proved that it can maintain a lead over a quality opponent for four quarters, and have the will and maturity to seal the deal in the most crucial moments.

Keith Smith Wills the Spartans to a Win

Sure, it’s not exactly of the magnitude of Jordan Williamson’s game-winner to effectively remove the Oregon Ducks from national title contention and put Stanford in the Rose Bowl driver’s seat. But to see this Spartan squad prove that it can seize the moment in the largest spotlight they are going to get, as they move onto greener pastures in the Mountain West Conference next season, is significant progress.

I wish I could tell you how the scene played out in person, but unfortunately I was sidetracked a few hours prior to the game. My stepson was “Matheney’d” in a baseball game after taking a rather violent foul-tip off his catcher’s mask, and it earned us an overnight stay at Children’s Hospital of Oakland.

ESPN could not have come calling at a better time this season, as the game started just as he was coming out of his haze in the ER and we kicked back and watched the Spartans take over Saturday night. Of course, he made me flip it over to the Oregon-Stanford game often; those kids really do like Phil Knight’s uniform ingenuity. And yes, he’s doing alright now.

Reflecting on the BYU game, and putting all past failures aside, it was easily the crowning moment so far for Coach Mike MacIntyre and his staff three years into his tenure at SJSU. They opened it up early for quarterback David Fales and allowed him and the offense to build a lead. By halftime Fales had more than 230 yards passing and three touchdowns. It looked like a 400-yard passing performance and the over were locks.

But as BYU adjusted well at halftime and came out playing much more efficient defense, MacIntyre allowed his defense to step to the forefront.

Rather than having Fales continue to sling the football all over the field, they went conservative and challenged the BYU offense to take over the game. I kept hearing that Ted Robinson-KNBR drop in my head (“They bend, and they bend, and they BEND…but they do not break”), but instead of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith establishing a fortress inside the 20, it was Jimmy Pruitt picking off Nelson; David Tuitoupu sacking Nelson and recovering his own forced fumble; and Keith Smith taking the game back for the Spartans at the end.

Finally, it appears the San Jose State has turned the corner.

Looking ahead

With a bowl bid almost assured to San Jose St, they conclude the season this weekend against Louisiana Tech, again at Spartan Stadium, again on ESPN2.

The Spartans can win a share of the WAC title with a victory and a Utah St. loss to Idaho. In other words, WAC title aspirations flew out the window when Utah St. beat La. Tech last week.

Nonetheless, it is a grand matchup to (most likely) end the football era of the Western Athletic Conference. La. Tech lost their national ranking to Utah St. last week, but still sports a 9-2 record and leads the nation in total offense. Their only other loss this season was to “Johnny Football” and Texas A&M, and the name of head coach Sonny Dykes is popping up in coaching vacancy rumors all over the country.

The Spartans are favored in some places by as much as 4.5 points, which I find a little curious. Given that La Tech posted 57 points on Texas A&M and spent several weeks nationally ranked, it seems quite optimistic to make San Jose St. the favorite, by more than a field goal no less.

Then again, it’s a long road trip for the Bulldogs, and the week before losing to Utah St. they had to come from behind to defeat Texas St 61-55. Perhaps those results, combined with a very motivated Spartan team ripe with momentum, have the odds-makers thinking otherwise.

Ultimately, the one certain element to this game will be fireworks. As the conference that gave us Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan; Colin Kaepernick and Kellen Moore; Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer wraps up its last football season, it’s only fitting that two teams capable of copious amounts of offense would send the WAC off in prime time.

The goal now for the Spartans is double-digit wins. Handle the Bulldogs, solidify their bowl standing, and head off into the Mountain West potentially as one of the favorites in 2013.

That, and keep their coach clear of all the numerous vacancies opening up around the country and up the road in Berkeley.