With a wild 52-43 victory last Saturday night that more than gave television viewers their money’s worth, San Jose State concluded its most successful regular season as a member of major college football, broke into the BCS top-25 rankings, and is crossing its collective fingers that the program can hang on to their savior—head coach Mike MacIntyre.
As the regular season winds down and the annual coaching dismissals start going out in the college football world, MacIntyre is one of the hottest names in the business and possibly the most discussed person related to San Jose State athletics since former Spartan track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith threw up their fists from the podium of the 1968 Summer Olympics.
There is no need to sugarcoat it—what MacIntyre has done in three years, guiding the team from a 1-12 debacle and turning it into a 10-2 mid-major force, is nothing short of remarkable. In fact, the argument can already made that the 2012 Spartan squad is the best in school history, and with a bowl victory it would have the most wins in school history and any argument to the contrary will probably be put to rest.
Last weekend’s game against Louisiana Tech was gratifying in more ways than one for Spartan fans. When looking over the schedule prior to the season, it was easy to single this one out as the toughest conference game of the season. While eventual WAC champions Utah State had something to say about that, Louisiana Tech spent about a month of the season nationally ranked and proved to be arguably the best win of the season for the Spartans.
In victory over the Bulldogs, the Spartans left no doubt that they can not only go toe-to-toe with an offensive juggernaut, but recover from adversity to regain a lost lead and put a team away in the second half. While for some programs it may just another day on the gridiron, it’s the final hurdle San Jose State had to get past on the way to establishing itself as a consistent winner. So many times, close games and momentum-shifting plays have been too much for the team to overcome; now, those hardships appear to be a thing of the past.
The Spartans came out on fire, and midway through the second quarter it appeared that after taking control of the game from the start, they might not relinquish it. But down 24-13 with less than five minutes remaining in the half, La. Tech mounted a nine-play touchdown drive that included a fourth-down conversion on the play prior to the score that brought them within four of the Spartans.
On the ensuing kickoff, Forrest Hightower—filling in for injured returner Tyler Ervin and dismissed former return man David Freeman—saw an impressive 47-yard return spoiled by a fumble. The Bulldogs needed seven plays and a little over a minute to score again, giving them their first lead of the game going into halftime.
From a two-score lead to down by three, an almost flawless half by the Spartans practically faded into the night. But one constant for the San Jose State this year has been their halftime adjustments—they’ve out-scored opponents 199-104 in the second half this season.
Against La. Tech it was no different. While the game remained competitive until the end, San Jose State had a player on both sides of the ball taking advantage of the television spotlight and taking the game back for the Spartans.
Senior running back De’ Leon Eskridge had his finest performance as a Spartan in his last home game, rushing for 217 yards on 28 carries and three touchdowns, two in the second half. With the Spartans having a shortage of depth and experience at the tailback position, Eskridge erased the need for depth as he got stronger and ran harder as the game went on. The performance left him eight yards shy of the 1000-yard mark with a (presumed) bowl game to go, and earned him WAC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Defensively, the night belonged to a one-time backup corner/nickleback, Bene Benwikere.
A few weeks ago, I was lamenting to a friend and fellow SJSU alum that this year’s team is in need of its own Dwight Lowery, referring to the Spartans’ two-time All American from their last bowl team, who currently plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Back in ‘06/’07, Lowery was all over the place for San Jose State, picking off passes at critical times and returning punts in electrifying fashion. In just two years as a JC transfer, Lowery became one of the great all time Spartans.
Benwikere may not be able to boast that status yet, but he did join Lowery in the SJSU record books by intercepting three passes Saturday night, with two coming in back-breaking fashion in the fourth quarter. Benwikere now has seven interceptions on the year—one returned for a touchdown—to go along with a fumble return TD. His performance against La. Tech was good enough to make him the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week.
Good question, one of several important ones that will hopefully be answered soon.
First is a potential bowl appearance. As athletic director Gene Blaymaier told Damon Bruce on his radio show Thursday afternoon, San Jose State won’t likely receive a bowl invitation until after things shake out in this final week of regular season play. He stressed the BCS ranking, 10-2 record, and high scoring offense as part of the Spartans’ appeal for bowl committees. With the only WAC bowl tie-in going to conference champion Utah State, there is still a chance SJSU could somehow be left out in the cold, which would no doubt be in the favor of mediocre 6-6 teams that travel better.
Seeing how injustices are nothing new in the world of college football, I’m taking nothing for granted until a bowl is announced.
That also goes for the tenure of MacIntyre at San Jose State.
As his star has continued to rise, Coach Mac has maintained (publicly anyway) a devotion to the university and his desire to grow the program. I don’t doubt any of that.
But I can’t help but notice that over the last month, his assertions that he is committed to staying at San Jose State continue to get less…well…assertive.
A few weeks ago he told Bruce to not even mention him along with the Cal job. Over the last two weeks as San Jose State became a hot local sports news item, he continuously kept a positive attitude toward staying in San Jose while merely deflecting the idea he could be looking elsewhere. Today during an appearance on 95.7 The Game’s “The Pulse” with Matt Steinmetz and Chris Townsend (SJSU alum and vocal supporter), MacIntyre didn’t even bother to dismiss the possibility that he won’t be San Jose State’s coach in 2013.
While he didn’t say he had been contacted by any other schools either, the only real comments on his future were that the bowl game was his main focus. Not exactly the sort of concrete commitment that eases a fan’s tensions about whether this season is a one-hit wonder or not.
I can’t entirely blame MacIntyre either. I firmly believe that he wants to build the program at SJSU. I firmly believe that he plans on leaving the program in much better shape than it was when he inherited it. I also firmly believe that he has the right to maximize his worth as a college football coach, and the way things stand right now San Jose State isn’t the place where he can do that.
Even Blaymaier, in talking about MacIntyre’s situation with Damon Bruce today, acknowledged in a round-about way that keeping him is going to be a challenge. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the fact that other schools are looking at MacIntyre, and that because of his hard work other coaches can see San Jose State is a place where you can win, is a good thing for the program.
Perhaps I am reading too far between the lines, but it sounds like Blaymaier is prepared to start interviewing replacements if he has to. Regardless, he has made it clear this week that San Jose State will do everything in its power to keep MacIntyre on campus.
As things in the college football coaching carousel continue to play out, I see some signs that point to at least another year with MacIntyre. Kentucky, which as far as the blogosphere was concerned was a perfect fit for Coach Mac, filled its vacancy with Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. Tennessee, if rumors are any indication, wants to make a major splash with its next hire and as much as a love Mac he would be a light ripple compared to the tidal wave that Jon Gruden would represent.
Cal, history tells us, sees itself above and beyond anything related to San Jose State, and I think we can include coaches in that. While I fully agree that MacIntyre would be a perfect fit there, I doubt they are looking in his direction, at least in the beginning of their search. In fact, they’ve already reached out to another WAC coach, Utah State’s Gary Andersen. It’s all speculation at this point, but if they had interest in San Jose State’s coach that information would probably be out there by now.
The opening that concerns me the most is at North Carolina State. I have heard from a source that works within the SJSU athletic department that this would be the most enticing opportunity to MacIntyre. It would be a return to his East Coast/southern roots, in the conference he played in as a collegiate. Hopefully they look elsewhere, or MacIntyre’s desire for stability with his family and to stay with the winner he created as they head into a new conference keeps him planted at least another year.
In the meantime, it’s another few days of the waiting game.
Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl? Heart of Dallas Bowl? Military Bowl? Does it even matter?
With arguably the greatest regular season in the school’s history under wraps, the only fitting way to cap it is with a bowl victory—regardless of who sponsors it or where it takes place.