The Mercury News Weekend
Imperfect end to San Jose State’s season
Five starters ‘not available’ to play as Spartans lose to Ball State in Arizona Bowl
The undefeated San Jose State football team, looking to write the perfect ending to a perfect season, instead got the most imperfect start imaginable at the Arizona Bowl on Thursday.
Shortly before kickoff, the school’s radio broadcast announced over the air that six players, including five starters, and the coordina
tors for both the offense and the defense were “not available” for the game.
A school spokesman did not disclose why they were not available and said it would be “inappropriate” to attribute their absences entirely to COVID-19 or virus-related protocols.
Whatever the case, the Spartans were rocked, giving up 27 points in the first quarter and losing 34-13 to Ball State at Arizona Stadium in Tucson.
But even after the throttling, coach Brent Brennan did not change his mind about his decision to bring the team home from Las Vegas after the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 19.
“That was the best thing to do for our players,” Brennan said in a postgame news conference. “That was the right thing to do for our young men with what they have been through and their mental health and being back with their people.”
Brennan declined to say why the players and coaches were unavailable, citing privacy protocols.
Asked when he was told the news, the coach said, “That was game time.”
And at game time, the Spartans wobbled badly, playing nothing like the team that brought a 7- 0 record to the field and No. 19 national ranking by The Associated Press, its highest since 1939.
Brennan acknowledged the short- handed lineup affected the team through the first half and into the third quarter. San Jose
State trailed 34- 0 before scoring two third- quarter touchdowns to complete the scoring.
“All those things are possible,” Brennan said. “They all contributed to it. The way this thing was all year with our ability to stay healthy and to be able to be together and play together and travel together and live in a hotel together, the team became so close.
“It became such a tightknit group. When you go through some of that stuff, it makes it really challenging. We were working through that, and it’s not easy.”
San Jose State entered the game as a 10-point favorite against an opponent that had an 0-7 record in bowl games.
But given that the list of missing players included Mountain West defensive
player of the year Cade Hall, top receiver Bailey Gaither, safety Tre Jenkins and offensive linemen Kyle Hoppe and Tyler Stevens — plus kick returner Shamar Garrett — the Spartans were no match for their hungry foe from Muncie, Indiana.
Spartans quarterback Nick Starkel challenged the narrative that SJSU was beaten before the game started.
“Our team was ready to play this game and stuff just happened the way that it did,” said Starkel, whose first interception — he threw three — was returned for Ball State’s first touchdown. “We had all we felt we needed. Ball State just came out there, and they gave it to us.”
San Jose State had avoided players and coaches testing positive for COVID-19 throughout a trun
cated season that began in October even as the deadly virus continued to spread across the country.
W hen S a nt a Clara County tightened restrictions in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 24 opener against Air Force, San Jose State packed up and spent 12 days practicing 320 miles away at Humboldt State.
When the county announced new restrictions at the end of November, the Spartans hit the road again. They moved a scheduled home game against Hawaii to Honolulu, then played two more “home” games in Las Vegas, including a victory over Boise State for the Mountain West championship.
But in a postgame news conference after the Spartans beat Boise State to clinch a spot in the Arizona Bowl, Brennan said the team would return to the Bay Area so that his players — many of whom hadn’t seen family since the summer — could spend Christmas with loved ones.
The team’s return was met with controversy, given that Santa Clara County health officials required 10 days of quarantining for people traveling beyond a 150-mile radius of the county line. A county official suggested that the football team might not be allowed to leave for Arizona as scheduled before later saying there was nothing that the county could do to stop the Spartans.
The team departed Sunday and practiced in Tucson for three days. Its dream was to return home with a perfect finish to its perfect season.
It couldn’t have ended more imperfectly.